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The After-School Puzzle

May 10, 2003

A seminal new study on a federally funded after-school program reached some surprising conclusions. Contrary to the findings of previous studies that credited enriched after-school care with everything from keeping kids safe to improving their test scores, the report by Mathematica Policy Research found that the $1-billion 21st Century Community Learning Centers provided few educational benefits and did not reduce the number of latchkey children. Children at the school-based centers did not feel safer and were more likely than a control group to report that they had been exposed to drugs.

It's one study of one year in one program, and after-school advocates were quick to denounce it. But the research by New Jersey-based Mathematica is not easily dismissed. Top-flight researchers praise it as the most comprehensive, rigorous study in the field.

Earlier studies, such as a 1995 UCLA report on LA's BEST, another school-based program, found that children who attended such programs fared better in a multitude of ways than other children, but they could not conclude that the programs made the difference. Maybe parents and students who signed up for after-school programs were more motivated to start with.

Mathematica researchers, however, set up two groups of equally motivated students who had signed up for the 21st Century program; one was admitted into the program, one was not. During the next year they compared the groups and found little difference.

The Mathematica study shows how little we know about whether these programs accomplish what parents and the public expect. Nor have previous studies managed to come up with a conclusive list of what qualities an after-school program should have for the best results. Yet after-school programs have been gaining in popularity and funding. California is poised to spend $550 million a year on them in a few years, once Proposition 49 kicks in. Policymakers have settled for feel-good slogans and less-than-exacting research. A new Brookings Institution report paints a grim picture of research on the topic. One supposedly comprehensive review omitted -- by design -- any study that didn't show positive results.

Citing the Mathematica study, President Bush proposes cutting the 21st Century program by $400 million. That's too much too fast. The centers should get a chance to fix the glaring problems detailed in the study, such as drab recreational offerings, homework classes in which teachers failed to check students' work and attendance so low that middle schoolers showed up an average of only one day a week.

Megan Beckett, a researcher at Rand Corp. who is among those worrying about the poor quality of after-school studies, said the after-school boom reminded her of the excitement over the DARE anti-drug curriculum. Large sums of money went into the program for many years, unquestioned, until objective study found it was largely ineffective and better programs were designed. Policymakers shouldn't wait that long to find out what works in after-school care.

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