After School Programs Help Students Achieve More in School

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After School Programs Linked to School Success in Students

With more and more research coming out, we are learning there is a direct corelation between a student success rate and quality after school programs.

The Founding Dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine, Deborah Lowe Vandell did a study on this very topic for Expandinglearning.org. She writes in her article:

In my years researching the effects of afterschool programs on children’s social and academic outcomes, I have observed the power that high quality programs can have on the learning and development of young people. This paper provides some reflections on selected research from my own study of the field in recent years, which has been deeply informed by that of many others. Since my first study of afterschool programs conducted more than 25 years ago (Vandell & Corasaniti, 1988), I am heartened by the growth in our understanding of the effects of out-of school time from a virtually unstudied area to abundant and solid evidence on the positive impacts of high quality programs. Whether they are called afterschool, expanded learning opportunities, out-of-school time, or something else, we know from research that these types of opportunities can lead to positive outcomes for children and youth, as well as families, communities, and schools (Durlak, Weissberg, & Pachan, 2011; Eccles & Gootman, 2002; Mahoney, Vandell, Simpkins, & Zarrett, 2009).

As the nomenclature in the field has evolved, so too have my own research lens and lines of inquiry. Through my investigations over the years, I have developed some beliefs about the implications of what we have learned for policy, which I share at the end of this paper. In my estimation, based on years of examination, high quality expanded learning programs are essential to the learning process because they provide young people with opportunities to relate to their world in new ways. Strong programs foster an orientation of being open to novel experiences, of being interested in others and the world, of being inquisitive and creative, and, ultimately, of becoming lifelong learners (Larson, 2000; Lerner et al., 2005; Shernoff & Vandell, 2008). As I see it, we have before us today unprecedented opportunities to ensure all expanded learning programs make a difference for children and youth (Vandell, 2012).

A Robust and Growing Research Base and 
Enhanced Measures of Effectiveness

Continued investment in research and evaluation in the expanded learning field has resulted not only in a robust research base but also in the development of reliable and valid measures of program effectiveness and impact that can be used effectively by practitioners and researchers to improve program quality (Vandell, 2011 September). Assessment tools are being created and refined by the academic and research community, as well as from within the growing local, state, and national infrastructure that promotes and supports high quality afterschool and summer programs. These instruments can be used by expanded learning programs to assess such factors as program quality and attendance; staff beliefs, attitudes, education, and training; staffing patterns, including recruitment and retention; and student performance in specific domains and skills, such as behavior and academic achievement.

The measures my colleagues and I developed for the California Afterschool Outcome Measures Project are examples of the kinds of psychometrically reliable and valid instruments available that assess student outcomes in the areas of skill development and positive behavior change (Vandell, O’Cadiz, Hall, & Karsh, 2012). The set of surveys, which can be administered online, is designed to be completed by students, program staff, and classroom teachers. Student surveys assess areas such as social competencies with peers, task persistence, work habits, and reductions in misconduct. Surveys completed by program staff and classroom teachers include measures of child behavior with other children, social skills with peers, task persistence, and work habits. With these data, programs are able to study changes in their students’ behaviors across the school year and to compare these changes to those found in other programs across the state.

In addition, students are able to use the Afterschool Outcome Measures Online Toolbox to report the quality of their experiences at the programs in three key areas—the quality of their interactions with program staff, quality of interactions with peers at the program, and their interest and engagement in program activities—again using well-established instruments with strong psychometric properties. Programs can then use these aggregated reports to assess how they are doing from the perspective of the youth who attend their program.

The Afterschool Outcome Measures Online Toolbox is now being used at more than 1,000 afterschool program sites in California, with plans to double the number of sites using the measures in the next 2 years. It will be important to see if the Afterschool Outcome Measures Online Toolbox can be used by program sites to improve student experiences (and student outcomes).

Of course, valid and reliable measures for researchers and practitioners alike are fundamental to being able to draw conclusions about the quality and outcomes of expanded learning programs. Some of the skills and knowledge that many afterschool programs are designed to promote are, in fact, complex to assess, and research in the field is limited by the inability to use experimental design to identify causal relationships. However, the instruments, approaches, and statistical models currently available do provide us with the ability to make substantive assertions about the correlations between program quality and outcomes for students.

Program Quality and Student Outcomes—Academic, 
Social, and Behavioral

My recent research, including the Study of Promising After-School Programs (Vandell, Reisner, & Pierce, 2007), the Longitudinal Study of Program Quality (Pierce, Bolt, & Vandell, 2010), and the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (Li & Vandell, 2013; Auger, Pierce, & Vandell, 2013; Lee & Vandell, 2013) reinforces previous studies that the breadth, quality, intensity, and duration of expanded learning programs make a difference in both short-term and enduring effects on student academic, social, and behavioral outcomes (Mahoney, Vandell, Simpkins, & Zarrett, 2009; Vandell, 2012). Based on the evidence, following are key characteristics of high quality expanded learning programs:

  • foster positive relationships between program participants and staff,
  • build positive relationships among program participants,
  • offer a blend of academic and developmental skill-building activities,
  • promote high levels of student engagement,
  • maintain an orientation toward mastery of knowledge and skills, and
  • provide appropriate levels of structure as well as opportunities for autonomy and choice (Eccles & Gootman, 2002).

Continue reading her findings.

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