All Work and No Play?

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 All Work and No Play?

Despite increased pressures on students to reach high academic standards, relatively small numbers of parents are looking for greater emphasis on academics in their child’s out-of-school time. That’s not to say parents don’t put a high priority on schoolwork—they do—but homework help or additional time spent on academic subjects is not the first thing parents have in mind when they think about their child’s free time. Kids, most parents say, need time to relax and just be kids. Once again, low-income and minority families are exceptions; both groups are considerably more likely to want activities that emphasize academic learning.

For two years in a row, major evaluations of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers,* conducted by the nonpartisan research firm Mathematical, found that participating students made few gains in academic outcomes such as test scores and grades, although there was some evidence of other kinds of benefits.9 As a result, some policy makers questioned whether there should be any taxpayer funding of after-school programs if they don’t result in improved academic achievement. The after-school community cried foul, saying that the programs evaluated were not designed to improve student academic achievement, so they should not be measured in this way, and that harder-to-quantify benefits were overlooked.

Inevitably, the debate will continue to rage among educators, policy makers and practitioners. But an important constituency is noticeably absent. What are our nation’s parents and students —the people who actually use out-of-school-time programs and activities—really looking for? Just how much do parents and youngsters rely on after-school activities to enhance academic learning? To what extent are they looking for socialization, playtime or merely a place with adult supervision? As we saw in the previous finding, not all parents and children want or need the same things. Since participation is purely by choice, knowing what drives these “consumers” is essential for implementing effective policies or creating constructive programs.

“It Would Burn Them Out”

The findings in All Work and No Play? strongly indicate that a greater emphasis on academics is not the first—nor the only—thing most parents are looking for when they sign up their children for activities after school. The survey posed the question “Other than safety, which of these do you think is the best reason for a child to be involved in organized activities and programs” during non-school hours? Only 15% of parents say “to improve how well they do in school.” A strong plurality (41%) instead points to developing their interests and hobbies, and related to that, an additional 16% think it is for children “to have fun.” Another 27% say the best reason is to keep kids busy and out of trouble.

One mother in Oregon outright rejected the idea of more schooling after school. “That would just kill them,” she said. “[It] would burn them out. If your kid is struggling with math, and if you then yank them after they’ve spent 45 minutes in a math class, from 3:00 to 5:00, to do it again? My kid would say, ‘Forget it.’” Still others in the focus groups talked about how kids need time to, well, just be kids. “I want him to be a kid,” a Texas father said. “He’s learning stuff now in the sixth grade that I didn’t learn until I was a freshman in high school…. So after school, be a kid, enjoy yourself.” In Arizona, a mother commented, “I think they need to come home and have some letdown time. If you have them go from school to school again, I think it’s overemphasizing school. They need some downtime, and they won’t get that if you’re sending them somewhere else to learn again.”

Importance of School

Still, as strongly as parents may feel about the need for letdown time, they also want their kids to thrive and succeed in school. A decade of Public Agenda research shows that parents care deeply about their child's academic progress and performance. In All Work and No Play? we found that parents are more likely to worry about how well their son or daughter is doing in school (44%) than they are to worry about who their child's friends are (35%) or how their child is occupied during out-of-school hours (13%). Asked which of these three would be the best match for their own child, they are about equally likely to pick a program focusing on academic preparation and skills (37%), sports and athletics (32%) or activities like music, dance or art (29%).

A Well-Rounded, Healthy Child

To some, these data may seem to conflict: Only 15% of parents think the best reason for children to participate in organized after-school activities and programs is to “improve how well [kids] do in school,” yet at the same time sizable numbers indicate they worry about their child’s academic performance and would pick an after-school program focusing on academics (rather than sports or the arts) for their own child. But to a parent, an after-school activity is more than just fun, or just tutoring, or just sports. To a parent, whose goal is to raise a well-rounded and healthy child, any exposure to something positive is potentially good. Parents are not looking to after-school programs just to provide specific things to do, they also look to them to reinforce good values and behavior. Asked which of three types of programs would be the best match for their own child, almost half (48%) pick one that focuses on “teaching the value of hard work and commitment,” another 33% a program that focuses on “helping other people in the community,” and 17% a program that reinforces their religious faith.

While the policy debate tends to be narrow and polarized (“More academics!” vs. “Time to have fun!”), parents must weigh the ideal situation against the reality of an individual child’s life. Perhaps their daughter struggles in school but shines on the softball field. Or maybe looking forward to band practice after the bell rings is what gets their son up and off to school in the morning. To many parents, more academics is not necessarily better. Put simply, even as parents recognize the importance of school and good grades in a child’s life, they don’t want to see their daughter or son overdose on schoolwork. “They’re hit all day long,” explained a mother from Texas. “So when they get home, let them go, let them play. I’m sure they’re tired of doing homework and stuff all day.”

Rising Academic Standards

Parents are keenly aware of the enormous pressure kids are under to do well in school. “The kids these days have a lot more pressure on them earlier than they did before,” said one mom in the Connecticut focus group. “I think education is so much more accelerated. They’re expected to know so much more, even just starting kindergarten, than they knew before.”

Indeed, with the passage of the No Child Left behind Act, there is more scrutiny than ever before on students’ standardized test scores and on the efforts schools are making to increase academic standards. Almost half of the parents surveyed for All Work and No Play? Say that their own community’s Public schools are raising academic standards and expectations (45%), although 18% think they are lowering them and 32% believe that things have remained about the same. But even among those who think standards are on the rise, only a very small number of parents (14%) point to academic help/enhancement as the best reason for a child to be involved in activities during out-of-school time, virtually identical to parents overall (15%).


Yet interestingly enough, while parents acknowledge higher standards and the pressure children are under these days to achieve them, they don’t make a beeline for “after school programs” as a solution. In fact, when forced to choose, a modest majority of parents (54%) agree, “Kids get more than enough academics during the school day, so after-school programs should focus on other things that capture their interest,” compared with 38% who say, instead, “Since schools are putting so much emphasis on standardized tests and higher academic standards, kids are better off in after school programs that focus on academic skills.”

Homework Helper

Despite the general sense that youngsters need non-academic outlets, some parents do like the idea of time reserved in after-school programs to help children with homework. A Texas dad praised the program his youngest child attended: “…they actually helped with their homework. It was teachers that were part of the program, and if they had homework to do, they’d do it during the after-school time. They’d sit down and do it, whereas in the other program [my kids] were in, it was playtime.” More than 1 in 3 parents (34%) say they’d go out of their way to find an after-school program that provides supervised homework time, and another 37% say this would be “nice but not essential.” Almost 3 in 10 (28%) say it would not be important.

Low-Income and Minority Families Eager for Academic Focus

Perhaps because the schools in their neighborhoods tend to be low performing, perhaps because they believe from their own experience that education is a ticket to a better lifestyle —whatever the reasoning—low-income and minority families stand out as being more eager for an academic focus in their child’s organized activities and programs during out-of-school time. By margins ranging from 4 percentage points to 29 percentage points, parents from low-income families (those earning less than $25,000 per year), and African American or Hispanic parents, are more likely than their respective counterparts to prefer a program for their own child that focuses on providing extra test preparation and academic skills and to go out of their way to find a program that focuses on homework help in a supervised setting. They are also more likely to think that because schools are emphasizing academic standards, children are better off in after-school programs that focus on academic skills rather than ones that focus on other things. Finally, by margins of almost 2 to 1, they are more likely to be concerned that their child will fall behind on academics during the summer.


What to Expect from Kids?

It’s one thing to ask parents if they think their child’s out-of school activities should focus on academic skills and learning. But it’s quite another to pose this question to middle and high school students, many of whom seem programmed to bolt at the sound of a bell. Only 9% of students, if given a choice, would pick an after-school activity that focused on academics and learning.

Why is it important to find out what students’ priorities are? Because if youngsters en masse lack enthusiasm for a particular activity or program, they simply won’t participate. And then the policy debate about academic vs. social outcomes becomes moot. Only about 1 in 10 students (12%) say improving how well they do in school is the best reason for a kid to be involved in things after school. They are far more likely to point to having fun (39%), keeping kids busy and out of trouble (29%) or developing interests and hobbies (19%). A strong indication that youngsters have some power in this matter: Most students (55% of middle school and 72% of high school) say they themselves mainly make the decision about how they will spend their out-of-school hours, and an additional 28% and 14%, respectively, say they contribute to the decision equally with their parents.

Some Want More

As reported in Finding 1, more than 6 in 10 students (61%) agree with the statement “When the school day is done, the last thing I want is to go to a place that has more academic work.” Nevertheless, a strong minority of students (39%) disagree, indicating an ample number of youngsters who are interested in taking on more schoolwork. Almost 1 in 3 students (32%) indicate they’d have a lot of interest in an after-school program that promised supervised homework help, and almost 3 in 10 (28%) would very much like one that focused mainly on academics. Well over half the students surveyed also say they would be very (17%) or somewhat (39%) interested in a program that helped kids keep up with schoolwork during the summer.

Out-of-school-time activities that center on learning are especially appealing to low-income and minority students. Compared to their higher-income and white peers, they are more likely to pick improving schoolwork as the best reason for kids to join activities, to like the idea of an after-school program that provides supervised homework help or academic preparation, and to be interested in a summer program that helped them keep up with schoolwork (see chart).



The Real Test

Conflicting ideas about the purpose of certain types of afterschool programs, especially ones that are funded by taxpayer dollars, engender lively discussions in policy-making circles. The question of whether or not the merit of after-school programs should be measured on their ability to improve academic performance will undoubtedly continue to be debated among policy makers and experts for years to come. In the meantime, parents, it seems, have discovered their own unfailing method to determine effectiveness. “Watch them when they come home,” a Colorado dad instructed. “Do they have a smile on their face? Are they sad? Are they quiet and withdrawn? My daughter comes back from most of the things she’s involved in, even the things she professes to hate, like piano, fairly happy and excited about it.”

*The 21st Century Community Learning Centers (CCLC) are part of a federally funded initiative launched by Congress in 1994 to meet growing public demand for after-school programs. More than 2.5 million students participate in the academic, recreational and cultural activities offered by the CCLC during after-school hours.

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