These days, the call to increase funding for extended school day and extended school year models is growing louder, but a recent Child Trends’ report, “Expanding Time for Learning Both Inside and Outside the Classroom: A Review of the Evidence Base,” questions the strength of the existing evidence base for both models, advising care and thoroughness when deciding to implement and/or fund these programs.
At first, it might seem curious that a paper reviewing almost 150 evaluations of extended school day models (ESD), extended school year models (ESY) and expanded leaning opportunity programs (ELO or afterschool, before-school and summer learning programs) reaches the conclusion that more research is needed.
But it’s true. A key finding from the report is that despite the number of existing evaluations on extended learning time models, “more rigorous and higher quality implementation and outcomes evaluations are needed for all types of extended learning time models.” I can’t agree more.
The report discusses that the existing body of research for ESD models is “far from conclusive,” research surrounding ESY models makes it “difficult to make conclusive statements about the effectiveness about these initiatives,” and despite “more rigorous, high-quality evaluations” of ELO programs, additional research—randomized experimental, implementation and larger-scale—is needed.
When examining research on ESD and ESY programs, the report finds that there are studies that associate positive academic gains with both types of programs, especially among students who are most at risk of failing or dropping out of school. However, it also cautions that—in addition to the shaky evidence base—a majority of studies do not establish that academic gains were solely attributable to ESD and ESY programs; there may be diminishing returns from students as the length of the school day increases; and it is quality, the use of time, and implementation that results in improved outcomes, not time alone. It’s also important to note that several of the ESD and ESY studies included in the report had non-significant or negative findings and the report’s conclusions on the Massachusetts ESD model were similar to concerns raised previously in Afterschool Snack.
As mentioned above, the researchers found a stronger base of evidence supporting afterschool, before-school and summer learning programs, but did recommend additional evaluations need to take place. Many of the authors’ takeaways on afterschool programs are very much in line with recommendations of the Afterschool Alliance, such as:
- Frequent participation and strong attendance improves outcomes for children in afterschool programs;
- Linking afterschool programs to the school day curriculum can complement lessons learned in school and help to close the achievement gap; and
- A focus on students’ social, as well as academic, needs, can positively impact their ability to learn.
One item of concern that I believe is important to highlight is the inclusion of Mathematica’s research on 21st Century Community Learning Centers (21st CCLC), research that largely associates negligible impact on program participant outcomes. Experts, including the Afterschool Alliance, have raised methodological concerns about Mathematica’s study in the past, such as including afterschool programs that were not funded by 21st CCLC grants, including treatment and comparison student groups that did not have similar attributes entering the study period and questioning if programs participating in the study were representative of 21st CCLC grantees nationwide.
Overall, this report was incredibly in-depth and interesting. It helps provide an analysis of the landscape of existing evaluations, points out what can make a program successful and brings to light the additional research that needs to take place. But most importantly, it highlights how quality expanded learning time models—including before school, afterschool and summer programs—can truly make a positive impact on children’s lives.