At a time when many schools are being pushed to narrow their focus and concentrate on core academic subjects like reading and mathematics, afterschool programs are being pulled in a dozen different directions. Program directors wrestle with a range of questions as they try to meet the diverse needs of funders, parents, and the young people they serve. Should afterschool time be an extension of school, focused on tutoring and homework help? Or a break from school, focused on sports, fitness, arts, and hobbies? Should programs reinforce traditional academic skills or provide a chance for more open-ended explorations? Should activities be supervised by experienced teachers or qualified youth workers trained to take a broad view of youth development? Is the goal to improve students’ performance in school, to foster positive relationships with peers and adults, or simply to keep kids safe and out of trouble?
Once thought of as just a time period, afterschool today has evolved into a movement—and it is a movement at a crossroads. Over the last decade, leaders in the afterschool field, including several at EDC, have put forward a vision of informal learning that is distinct from the experiences students typically encounter in schools. Afterschool programs can provide young people the opportunity to explore materials and ideas in a fun and flexible environment, with fewer boundaries and time constraints. They can work with peers—and adult mentors or coaches—to develop projects, rather than following a fixed curriculum. And they can discover connections between traditional academic subjects and such topics as popular culture, art, media and technology, careers, and their own communities.
To many in the field, the need to support and build these programs—sometimes called project-based learning or experiential learning—has never been greater, as the push to improve student performance on standardized tests has left little room in the school day for art, music, sports, or creative projects. EDC and our partners have responded to that need by developing materials and professional development models aimed at fostering this kind of informal learning. At the same time, the need for tutoring programs designed to help large numbers of students improve their basic academic skills is also rising, as the student achievement gap makes clear.
We recently convened a panel of leaders in the afterschool movement to discuss the challenges facing the field, including three EDC staff members and one of our key partners. Our panel included Bernie Zubrowski, of EDC’s Center for Science Education, who has spent more than 30 years designing hands-on science and engineering programs and museum exhibits. He is the director of two EDC projects funded by the National Science Foundation: Design It! Engineering in After-School Programs, and Explore It! Science Investigations in Out-of-School Programs. Tony Streit, of EDC’s Education, Employment, and Community Programs, is the director of the YouthLearn Initiative at EDC, which offers youth development professionals and educators comprehensive services and resources for using technology to create exciting learning environments. Laura Jeffers, of EDC’s Center for Children and Technology, codirects the research initiative for the America Connects Consortium, which helps community technology centers across the United States gather and analyze data about their programs. Jeffers also works with YouthLearn to provide technical assistance to organizations that have received youth media grants from Time Warner. Ellen Gannett is the co-director of the National Institute of Out-of-School Time, which works to ensure that all children, youth, and families have access to high quality programs, activities, and opportunities during nonschool hours. Dan Tobin, EDC’s director of communications, moderated the panel discussion.
The four panelists engaged in a wide-ranging discussion on a variety of topics, including staffing and professional development, research and evaluation, the role of afterschool programs, and directions for the future. Here are excerpts from their conversation.
Relationship Between School and Afterschool
Dan Tobin (DT): What role does afterschool learning play in relation to schools?
Ellen Gannett (EG): I’ve worked in the field for 30 years and I’ve watched the landscape change dramatically. I entered the field as a certified teacher because I loved being creative and building the curriculum with the children, as opposed to having to use a prescribed curriculum. When I first started in the field, it used to be very clear what my job was. My job was to complement what the schools were doing, not to duplicate it. I filled in the gaps in areas that schools weren’t providing—such as more opportunities for phys. ed., art and music, socialization, and conflict resolution. But then the landscape changed as people grew increasingly concerned about closing the academic achievement gap. We can’t deny the fact that there are a lot of young people failing in our schools and I feel deeply committed to helping them. But what is the role of afterschool in meeting that goal? The school should still stay focused on instruction and afterschool should take a different, complementary course. It’s about providing lots of opportunities for young people to make decisions and solve problems, rather than being told continuously what to do and how to do it. These opportunities build the skills that will prepare young people for life and for work.
Bernie Zubrowski (BZ):
I agree that afterschool should not be a continuation of school. In
schools, young people are rarely given time to play around with
materials. I’ve heard from colleagues at places like MIT and Stanford
that many students are coming into the university without practical
problem-solving abilities. They don’t have an intuitive sense of how
systems work or how to work with materials. Programs like Explore It!
provide those kinds of opportunities. And because it’s afterschool,
they can do it in a more open-ended way. That sort of playing around is
the foundation for thinking about design and engineering.
Laura Jeffers (LJ): In my experience, many afterschool practitioners feel as Ellen and Bernie do, that their programs should provide a qualitatively different experience from the school day, which is one of the reasons why the current emphasis on academics poses such a challenge for afterschool programs.
Tony Streit (TS): In our YouthLearn trainings, we ask afterschool educators to recall a powerful learning moment from their childhood. They usually tell stories about experiences outside of school where they got to be creative and interact with adults in ways that were different from the student-teacher relationship. They learned about their community or did hands-on activities. Those are the kinds of experiences that get embedded in people’s memories and become part of what defines them. And those kinds of experiences contribute to healthy development—and they can provide connections to academic learning. Every creative activity you might do in an afterschool program contains some kind of academic principles—science or math or communications or language. Bringing that content in and being conscious of it—without having it dominate the experience—is a big part of our work.
Tutoring and Academic
DT: A recent Public Agenda study showed that different groups of parents are looking for different things from afterschool programs. In particular, minority and lower-income parents were more interested in academic help than were middle- and upper-income white parents. How should afterschool programs address those different needs?
LJ: That’s an important issue. Parents in many of the communities where afterschool programs are critical resources don’t see the kinds of open-ended and hands-on activities we’ve been talking about here as academic support. Afterschool programs have to decide which approach or combination of approaches to take, and they may need to make a case for whether and how that set of approaches addresses parents’ concerns.
BZ: People just need to recognize that homework help is a totally different function from the open-ended explorations we’re talking about. They require different skills and different kinds of instruction.
EG: One of the phrases that is being batted around in the field is “intentionality.” To me, that means you start with wherever the program is and you become intentional about finding connections to academic content. So if you’re doing a cooking activity, the staff person reinforces some ideas of measurement, or what happens when you combine liquids and dry ingredients. It’s not that you’ve turned it into an instructional activity, but you’ve taken teachable moments to introduce some connection to science.
BZ: Even if they’re intentionally making the connection, it still takes sophistication to do it well. And there are curriculum packages out there to help people do activities like that. We actually have a cake-baking activity in ExploreIt!. Kids make up their own recipes and have the opportunity to take flour, sugar, and baking powder and mix them together. Now, if it’s done a certain way, all they do is bake a cake. Done another way—where it’s structured and primed for discussion—you can start getting into things like proportionality. What is the proportion of dry ingredients to wet ingredients? But it took time to develop that and to incorporate those ideas into the fun activity of baking a cake. It takes a combination of preplanned activities and skillful people to make the intentionality productive.
Research and Evaluation
DT: Is there research that demonstrates the effectiveness of the kind of afterschool programming that we’re talking about?
EG: I think the afterschool movement needs to resist the idea of being measured by the same tools that have measured instructional practices. The good news is that national leaders in the afterschool field are talking about this. I’ve recently attended some very provocative meetings in which people are looking at afterschool as a unique place that should be judged with a unique set of tools, not ones borrowed from school testing.
TS: I agree. That raises the the question of what it is we are researching. Is the research focused solely on academic achievement—that test scores of kids in afterschool programs have improved as a result of the program? That’s very difficult to prove. Or should the research focus on positive youth development outcomes, as we’ve been talking about? Programs are fixating on collecting kids’ report cards and not looking at things like improved social skills, ability to work in teams, communications skills. It can be difficult for the programs to define what the learning outcomes should be.
EG: We can learn a lot from research that identifies the characteristics of youth development programs that contribute to young people’s growth and self-efficacy. There have been a number of studies looking at young people who have multiple risk factors—poverty, emotional problems, learning difficulties, parents who are alcoholic or drug addicted. The more risk factors a young person has, the more likely he or she is to be struggling in school or in life. One study in particular followed a group of young people with multiple risk factors and tried to understand why some of them did very well in life and others with the same risk factors didn’t. And what they came up with was that the children doing well had a mentor in their lives. We know that when children have somebody who is there for them over the long term, who really cares deeply, and sets high standards for them, it can make a real difference. That’s the safety net that afterschool can play for a whole set of young people. We’re the first line of defense for a lot of children and adolescents who may be doing badly. We’ve seen many examples where the afterschool staff were the first ones to notice that a child had hearing problems or sight problems. These diagnoses don’t happen regularly for a whole lot of young people, especially in a community where it’s difficult to get an appointment in a clinic. And then there’s the emotional side. How many children may need mental health support? All of these things are part of our agenda at NIOST.
Keeping Youth in the Program
DT: One measure of the success of a program is popularity—i.e., does it keep young people coming back? But doesn’t that lead to activities that are entertaining rather than educational?
TS: Too many times, a program leader simply wants to keep young people occupied and not thinking about leaving—particularly with older kids. Programs set up computer labs, and children use them to play games and surf the Web. And you ask the staff why they’ve set it up that way and they say, “Well, the kids behave when they do that.” A lot of it is about the environment you establish and the boundaries. Some programs just get rid of the Internet because it creates so much distraction. But it should be like having a TV in the corner; you don’t leave that on all the time just because you have it.
DT: I read a quote recently from a teacher about the challenge of motivating young people to learn. She said, “You know it’s a really mixed message to tell students they can follow their passion, except their passion has to be physics.”
EG: There are lots of ways to follow your passion. Some programs, for instance, might include activities that focus on physics, and you go there because it’s something that you’re interested in. On the other hand, it’s possible to engage young people in lots of things they’re not familiar with or have misconceptions about. There are a lot of ways to make those connections.
TS: That gets to the issue of professional development. A highly skilled afterschool worker is this great pied piper who is able to introduce things without saying, “We’re going to do physics.” It’s the person who is taking something apart when the young people come in to the computer lab and asking, “Hey, did you know what this thing inside here does? Did you know that if we switch it around, it will do this?”
EG: You have to meet youth where they are and in the ways they like to engage in an activity. Some of them may be more open to hands-on learning, while others may take in information in different ways. The ability of the staff person to understand young people’ developmental abilities as well as their different learning styles is key. We need to train people on multiple ways to get youth hooked—using music to get one young person interested and writing, speaking, theater, or hands-on science for others. That is a highly skilled technique.
DT: The afterschool projects at EDC are based on a hands-on, inquiry based approach. How equipped is the typical afterschool worker to guide that kind of open-ended learning?
BZ: It does require a great deal of skill to help young people play with things in a highly productive manner. Even open-ended activities have some sort of structure—so that kids aren’t running around all over the place. The program leader is providing some guidance. But often the program leaders in afterschool settings don’t have the science background or experience to ask the right question at the right time. Given this situation, there is a need for ongoing professional development.
LJ: The issue of the capacity of staff to assist children in doing this kind of thinking and problem-solving is huge. This work is often a challenge for trained teachers, let alone the average afterschool staff person, who may be a college student, parent, or community member and is getting a low salary, often no benefits, and minimal training. Some afterschool programs try to address this by bringing in certified teachers and/or using curricula developed specifically for afterschool and that come with professional development for staff.
EG: Bringing school teachers into afterschool programs presents some interesting challenges. Not all classroom teachers are suited to the informality of the afterschool atmosphere. Some classrooms teachers love being able to take off that hat and relax with young people and share their skills and talents in a different way. We need to look for the people who are the best fit for the afterschool environment. The other thing that classroom teachers carry, whether they like it or not, is the negative associations some young people have with schools. For some, school carries with it a fear of failure—and we don’t want to import that fear into the afterschool environment. The idea of being able to experiment—to take something apart and put it back together, to try out something new—works in afterschool because there is no test, or judgment that you are doing it wrong, or sense that Mom or Dad will find out.
TS: We’ve worked with a number of sites that are using teachers as consultants and advisors. They meet with the afterschool staff and help them make linkages between what they were doing and what the kids were studying in school. But that again takes time and planning and, of course, funding.
DT: You’ve done a lot of professional development with youth development workers around the country, Tony. Are you optimistic about what can be accomplished given the constraints of the turnover rate, the pay, lack of time?
TS: Professional development is a long-term process. The notion that you can sign up for a one- or two-day training and walk out certified, ready to deliver something is false. Typically, people walk out of our trainings realizing they need to fix four or five things before they can start doing what they came to the training to learn. For example, they might walk in thinking that to do project-based learning, they just need some good project ideas. In fact, they need planning time, connections to community resources, and perhaps a content partner, such as a local science museum or cultural center. They also need to get other staff on board so they can do the project as a team, where one staff member does the art part and someone else does music and someone else literature. And that kind of collaboration takes much more planning. The ideal professional development scenario is that you plant those seeds and then you try to reconnect with those programs later on.
LJ: That’s very similar to what we’ve learned about effective professional development for teachers. It’s been proven over and over again that one-shot training—regardless of what it is that you want teachers to adopt or adapt—doesn’t work. It needs to be an iterative process. Like most things, you learn how to do something new by trying it out.
EG: Recently, we did an evaluation of afterschool programs in one city and our major finding was just that point—that training alone is not going to work. The ideal training sequence has got to be “learn something, try it out, and come back and reflect on what worked and what didn’t.” You build on what you’ve already learned to work toward higher levels of competency. But, as Tony says, that gets back to the funding question.
Investing in the Field
DT: Let’s say you have $5 million or $10 million that somebody gives to you or you have it to give to the afterschool movement. What would you do with it?
LJ: I have two thoughts: One is helping individual organizations articulate what they value and what their goals are, who their client is, and so forth. The field as a whole encompasses so many different kinds of programs with different goals and serving different communities. One of the big challenges for afterschool programs is that they feel accountable for assessing and measuring things that they are really not designed to address. Being able to articulate the program goals and clearly identify the clients would go a long way toward avoiding those kinds of disconnects, and save a lot of resources and frustration. The second thing would be professional development. Having identified the goals of your program, what can you do to help the staff be as successful as possible?
TS: I agree. We are working with a network of community technology centers to help them better evaluate their effectiveness. We get them to reflect on what it is that they are trying to accomplish and how they can measure their success. Programs feel so pressured by their funders’ priorities that they sometimes don’t spend enough time thinking about what they want to accomplish and how to communicate and measure it. I would also love to see more research around the secondary impact that these programs have. How do they help shore up the social and emotional needs of young people so that they succeed in all aspects of their life?
EG: I would use $10 million to invest in creating “intermediary” agencies in the community. The organizations that run programs for youth have to stay focused on what they do best. The hours spent in these programs can be a wonderful time for the young people and the adults who work with themBut there are a whole lot of other things to be done—such as the professional development we’ve talked about, or creating a directory of programs so that families know where to go for different things: “How do I find the right program for my child if I live in the city of Boston? How many different options are available? Is there one phone call I can make to find out?” That kind of intermediary would help programs locate other services, as well as help families. That’s taking a more systemic view of the work.
BZ: I’d like to find some way of reaching a key segment of program leaders. When we were doing Design It!, we ran into people in several cities who were middle-aged women who had been in afterschool for a long time. And these people weren’t leaving the field; they were hanging in there because they cared a lot about kids and they could afford to do the work. It would be interesting to try to target that audience. They weren’t always comfortable with science and engineering, but we found that if you worked with them over a few years, they could become leaders. You could set up the kind of professional development network Ellen was talking about to train these women and then have them eventually train others.
EG: The opportunities to professionalize the field as a unique field will dwindle if we don’t make a major investment right away. Here in Massachusetts, new legislation was passed that will give planning grants to school districts to explore “extended-day programs.” It will actually be a full-day program with no distinction between in-school and out-of-school time. Now, that could be a very exciting model if done well—in a way that responds to the natural rhythms of young peoples’ energies. Or, it could be deadly.
TS: I have one final thought: In the end, many of the issues we’ve discussed come down to philosophy. If there is anything that we haven’t emphasized enough in this discussion, it’s our core belief in the creative, inquisitive potential of young people. They are, in fact, the greatest asset in afterschool programs. They bring energy and enthusiasm and they are fun to be with. The hours spent in these programs can be a wonderful time for the young people and the adults who work with them—particularly if you view them as partners in the programming rather than just vessels to be filled up with facts and information.
Originally published on January 1, 2006