The after-school research debate continues. A new study (pdf) making the rounds up on Capitol Hill, purports to show the wrongness of the 2005 Mathematica study (pdf) on federally funded after school programs. Ed Week’s Viadero reports here.
There is at once less and more here than meets the eye.In the less department: The basic punchline is that if you go out and find really high quality after-school programs, they’re good for kids. Wow. I also hear it gets awfully cold in Chicago in the wintertime. The effect sizes in the new study seem a little too good to be true but I don’t think you’ll find many people that dispute the underlying premise.
Problem is, not every program is a high quality one and the federal government spends almost a billion dollars a year on after-school programs. In fact, in most of the attention to extending learning time almost no one mentions that the feds are already in that game in a big way through the after-school program and also some Title I funds (via No Child Left Behind’s tutoring provisions per Sherman Dorn’s comment below).
That’s why the Mathematica study offered more analytic leverage than this new one, it was randomized (for students at the elementary school level and schools at the middle school level). In other words a random selection of programs, not a deliberate sample of good programs. Unfortunately, Viadero covered that more like a horse race than just explaining the issue to readers. But this is education…methods…we don’t need no stinkin’ methods!
Still, program quality problems are (a) hardly surprising considering how quickly these programs came on-line and (b) not a reason to just cut the funding as many congressional Republicans want. See this paper for more on all that.
So, in the more than meets the eye department, here’s a radical idea to address two (maybe three) problems: Why not convert the entire after-school funding stream into portable vouchers (call them “coupons” or some such thing if it goes down easier) that eligible families can use to purchase after-school services either via traditional after school programs or through the various supplemental services programs that have sprung up in the wake of No Child Left Behind? At the same time, eliminate the supplemental services (eg tutoring) provisions of Title I, which are something of a disaster anyway and distract from the intended purpose of that program. But, means-test the program so that it’s aimed at low-income kids.
This would be one step to (a) get on top of the quality problem in after-school by introducing some actual competition though you’d still need some sort of certification process for providers, something that’s been a joke under the current law (b) possibly turn the supplemental services idea into a more effective one by making it a genuine “wrap-around” for at-risk kids and (c) it might be enough of a choice program to ease the demand for vouchers and, as in 2001, put together enough of a coalition to pass a reauthorization of No Child Left Behind without vouchers becoming a flashpoint. What you’d basically have would be a billion dollar program through repurposed dollars that you could target to poor kids in struggling schools to get them extra help.
By empowering parents you’d get around the fox guarding the henhouse challenges of No Child Left Behind’s tutoring provisions but school districts could also compete to serve these kids or encourage parents to pool the dollars for various programs.
The burgeoning after school industry won’t like it, nor will the public school establishment (though taking supplemental services out of Title I might ease their pain a bit), and middle class parents will be pissed if this impacts their after-school programs, but it just might be good for poor kids…