02/06/2013 10:58 am ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

Afterschool and Summer Enrichment: Getting the Policy Attention They Richly Deserve

Education reformers packed the ballroom at the National Press Club this morning. They gave a standing ovation to the first speaker -- the president and CEO of a major national foundation that has invested millions of dollars over two decades to improve future prospects for low-income and at-risk students. They listened raptly and posed questions to a panel of high-profile speakers: the mayor of a big city, the Executive Director of a national school association, the director of a major philanthropic education initiative, and the founding dean of a school of education. One of the authors of a chapter in the book being released gave a big "shout-out" to Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

No, this was not a seminar on developing better student assessments and teacher evaluations. The reformers represented state afterschool alliances, networks, and providers from across the country; the foundation was Charles Stuart Mott; the mayor was Christopher Coleman, of St. Paul, Minnesota; United Way was there to tout its comprehensive, whole-child approach to education reform; and the shout-out from Arnold Sege instructed Duncan, "if you're not going to help us, at least get out of our way!"

The event marked a milestone in the movement to make afterschool and summer enrichment programs a core element in education reform, and the 442-page, hundred-plus-author compendium, Expanding Minds and Opportunities, is proof positive of how far this movement has come -- but also how far it has to go.

As moderator Jim Kohlmoos, Executive Director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, noted, the amount, longevity, and rigor of the data no longer permit doubt as the to the positive impact of high-quality afterschool and summer programs. The evidence from studies across a range of program models, participant ages, cities, and outcome goals is solid. And while it is clearer now than ever that such programs can narrow achievement gaps, particularly by improving academic achievement of high-needs students, their other benefits are even more significant and further-reaching.

The compendium documents the impact of these programs in improving attendance and helping to reduce chronic absenteeism, which is a major factor in opening early achievement gaps and sustaining them. It explains how well-designed afterschool programs can build not only cognitive, but workplace-relevant "soft" skills like creativity, inquisitiveness, and the current favorite, "grit." Reformers talk a lot about developing students' STEM skills but, as Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee witnessed firsthand, summer programs in which students can analyze water pollution and build robots make these subjects real in a way that can turn potential drop-outs into scientists-in-the-making. Afterschool and summer programs are particularly well-suited to draw on area businesses for internships and mentoring, and on the college visits, tours, and targeted guidance that build real "college and career readiness" skills.

Ralph Smith of the Annie E. Casey Foundation provides five guidelines to maximize the effectiveness of summer and afterschool: align in-school and out-of-school learning; identify and respond to individual learning needs; pay attention to health and school attendance; partner with families; and partner with community groups and organizations, and treat school, home, and community as a unified system. These parallel closely the philosophy of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, and its belief that achievement gaps are rooted in opportunity gaps and can only be successfully narrowed by equalizing opportunities. Despite the overwhelming evidence, however, afterschool and summer are still on the margins, not front-and-center, and Smith's agenda contrasts with that of popular current education reforms, which focus nearly exclusively on in-school and even in-class factors.

Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of the event were panelists' repeated laments that schools no longer have the time or resources (or mandate) to make learning engaging by nurturing strong teacher-student ties, individualizing instruction, and prioritizing hands-on and real-life experiences. Basic skills acquisition and testing increasingly force out the parts of school that students, parents, and teachers enjoy and know are most important. Thus, they say, we need afterschool and summer enrichment more than ever. That may be, but it delivers another important message to policymakers: just as it's critical to make afterschool and summer core components of K-12 education policy, those aspects -- hands-on, real-life, strong parent engagement, and teacher-student relationship-building -- that make afterschool programs so successful should be core metrics for successful schools and successful school reforms.