Optimizing Extended Learning Time:  

Building the Field

Out-of-School-Time (OST) programs are in the spotlight more than ever before due to calls for non-school services to address achievement gaps, interest in promoting “21st century skills” such as critical thinking and technological fluency, and the upcoming reauthorization process for the No Child Left Behind Act, which includes many decisions regarding 21st Century funding, the primary federal grant that supports OST programs across the nation. Recent research studies have contributed to the growing evidence base about the benefits of OST programs for youth. Broadening our thinking about student learning to include strategies that focus on where children are and what they are doing outside of the classroom, research has shown that high-quality OST programs are associated with improvements in children’s attendance, homework completion, academic achievement, school behavior, and socio-emotional outcomes, and this can be especially true for at-risk youth. It is also true that those who participate more frequently and for longer periods of time are most likely to benefit from OST opportunities. Some research suggests that what students do during the OST hours has as much bearing on their academic success as what they do during the school day. [i]

The Foundation is particularly interested in summer learning time, since research indicates that, on average, students lose skills over the summer, particularly in mathematics; and that summer learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students. Most disturbing is that it appears that summer learning loss is cumulative and that, over time, these periods of differential learning rates between low-income and higher-income students contribute substantially to the achievement gap in reading.[ii]

Research from an eight state study known as the Promising Afterschool Programs study suggests that disadvantaged elementary and middle school students who regularly attend high quality afterschool for at least two years are academically further ahead of peers who spend more out-of-school time in unsupervised activities. The researchers found, over the course of the three-year project, that the more engaged students were in supervised afterschool activities, the better they did on a range of academic, social, and behavioral outcomes.[iii]

According to much of the research, OST can make a difference for students in four ways: (1) improve student learning by addressing the needs of the whole child; (2) Promote family engagement with students and schools by providing families with access to services and opportunities to participate as leaders and learners; (3) Help schools function more efficiently by working together to support learning; and (4) Add vitality to communities through engagement with the schools and resources that works both ways.

While out-of-school programs frequently refer to extra-curricular activities, or activities unrelated to in-school learning, more and more out-of-school programs are tied directly to in-school learning and on-going curriculum. There is also a growing movement to extend the learning day, and most of this will happen either through OST programming exclusively or longer school hours where the afternoon curriculum closely mirrors effective OST programs.

Finally, OST settings often provide a proving ground for highly innovative ideas, from game-based learning to virtual schools. This is particularly true for STEM OST programming. In fact, afterschool and summer learning programs play a major role in engaging children and youth in STEM topics and careers. This environment by nature offers the kind of project-based and hands-on learning time and venue that sparks their interest and passions – a logical platform to engage them in STEM education. The principles of experimentation and exploration inherent in the scientific process are also found in afterschool and summer programs, where children and youth confront problems, develop solutions and work collaboratively.

Unfortunately, the OST systems that provide such programs can suffer from fragmentation and lack of coordination, sometimes resulting in poor access and quality, especially for those most in need of these services. In our five years of grantmaking in this arena, we have found these limitations coincide at the local and state level of OST programming in Texas. In recent years, close study of the afterschool field has begun to define what is needed for a young person to have a quality experience during the OST program hours. Research and evaluation investments over the past several years has moved researchers and practitioners beyond the question of whether OST programs matter for youth to questions about why, how and for whom these programs matter and matter most.  Stakeholders of all backgrounds now acknowledge that youth need access to not just any program, but to well-designed, high-quality programs.

KDK-Harman Foundation seeks to focus on the identification of what makes a quality academic OST program that is proven to reduce achievement gaps. At the same time, we also hope to fortify this field’s infrastructure and collaboration of extended learning time networks at the regional and state level. Specifically, KDK-Harman can be catalytic in building capacity in the field by facilitating and strengthening the development of partnerships, networks and models that exemplify what works for engaging and retaining students in OST programs. We can also work to support continuous program evaluation of progress and effectiveness in OST programs, an area that is lacking in the OST space to a large degree. Guidelines for establishing quality and measurement tools to assess program effectiveness do exist, such as the quality standards developed in 1998 by the National Afterschool Association, but many OST programs in Central Texas are not familiar with these standards or do not fully utilize them. There also needs to be more attention given to other characteristics of high-quality programs, such as positive staff-youth relationships, opportunities for skill-building and mastery, opportunities for youth engagement, voice and decision-making, and positive peer relationships.[iv]

Just as schools cannot do it alone, OST programs are necessary but not solely sufficient to support learning and development. Rather, they are one integral part of families’ lives, of communities, and of education. We feel that OST programs play a critical role in redesigning a new learning system, and offer a promising breeding ground for best practices in reimagining how, when, and where students learn.

[i] Making the Case: A 2009 Fact Sheet on Children and Youth in Out-of-School Time, National Institute on Out-of-School Time at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.

[ii] Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children’s Learning, RAND Corporation, 2011.

[iii] Making the Case: A 2009 Fact Sheet on Children and Youth in Out-of-School Time, National Institute on Out-of-School Time at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.

[iv] Harvard Family Research Project, The Evaluation Exchange, XII, 1&2.