Monitor After-School Programs Carefully


Jan 2, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on January 2, 2003.

We all know that it's easy to spend money — but hard to spend it wisely. Now that California schools have access to up to $550 million in new assistance annually under Proposition 49 to fund after-school programs, wise choices need to be made to ensure the money will be used for programs that give children the maximum benefit.

Voters approved Proposition 49 in November in response to a campaign led by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who argued that children would benefit by the creation and expansion of after-school programs in schools around the state.

Virtually everyone wants these programs to provide the same things: a safe place to stay for youngsters who don't have a parent at home when school lets out; enrichment programs to help children learn additional material and improve their school performance; and interesting and enjoyable activities that will occupy our kids and make it less likely they'll get in trouble with gangs, crime, drugs and sexual behavior. But there's no consensus on which programs achieve these goals. There's also no consensus on the best types of after-school programs. As a result, many approaches will be tried in the next few years — some winners and others losers.

We can learn a great deal from both the successful and unsuccessful programs, but only if we set up a way to monitor and evaluate them. Once we know the best and worst of the new programs, those that work best can be established in other schools and those that perform worst can be improved or eliminated.

Today after-school care is needed more than ever by California families. As the number of mothers in the work force grows, more and more children are becoming "latch-key kids" — youngsters who get home before a parent, and are left to fend for themselves for up to several hours. Nationally, nearly 20 percent of children ages 6 to 12 with working mothers are regularly without adult supervision after school.

After-school programs are rapidly multiplying and expanding to meet the needs of working parents and their children. For example, the budget for the largest single source of funding for after-school care, the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers, has increased from about $1 million annually in 1997 to $1 billion annually today.

No one knows if all this extra money is being spent in the most effective way to help our children. It's about time we find out, by evaluating and grading the performance of these programs — giving them the equivalent of report cards that schools issue to their students.

Backers of after-school care point to the results from a number of evaluations to bolster their claims of the benefits of their expanding programs. But a close reading of these evaluations shows that we cannot really attribute many, if any, of these supposed benefits to participation in after-school care.

While promising, the results of existing evaluations are based on flawed and ultimately unconvincing data. The existing evaluations suffer from problems including poor measures of benefits to students; lack of an adequate control group of students not in after-school care programs; and failure to test if the results are statistically significant.

A more convincing evaluation design is what's known as a "gold standard" study, where some children are randomly assigned to participate in a program while others are excluded. In such a study, differences in how well the youngsters in the two groups fare in a variety of ways can be observed over months and years. Changes can be attributed to whether students participated in the after-school care program.

No such convincing studies of after-school care programs have been done up to now. It's time to begin this work. Schools and the state should start setting up such studies as soon a possible, so they can learn the wisest ways to invest money in programs most likely to give California's children the greatest benefit.

Beckett is a sociologist with RAND, a nonprofit research and policy analysis institution based in Santa Monica.

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