Effective afterschool programs can improve students’ academic achievement, work habits and personal behavior. They serve kids at a critical time – the hours after 3 in the afternoon when they would otherwise be out of school and on their own. 

Now, it’s a critical time for these afterschool and summer programs.

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Congress is considering the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – the leading federal legislation that funds primary and secondary education. 

Among the many decisions that Congress will make is whether to maintain funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. These federally funded afterschool and summer programs serve some 1.6 million students a year, primarily students from low-income communities. These programs offer high-quality, hands-on activities under the supervision of caring, specially trained staff.  Most studies agree that high-quality afterschool programs are making a huge and helpful difference in youngsters’ lives.  

But now these programs are in danger of being cut back or even closed down, depriving poor kids of crucial opportunities to learn and develop during the non-school hours. Unless this initiative is preserved as a dedicated stream of funding, these afterschool programs offered in collaboration with local partners including public schools, community organizations such as YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs, and faith-based organizations will be seriously jeopardized. 

Decisions about the future of afterschool programs should be based on accurate, comprehensive, and current research. As a substantial body of research reveals, high-quality afterschool programs do result in improvements in the students’ personal behavior, their academic achievements and their attendance at school. These improvements are described in detail in a recent comprehensive review of more than 300 studies published in the Handbook of Child Psychology and Developmental Science.  In research presented this month at the Society for Research in Child Development, I reported additional new findings that show afterschool programs are on par with early childhood programs in supporting later reading comprehension and math achievement.  

And, these findings are in keeping with other recent studies. For instance, in a national study that I conducted with colleagues from the University of California – Irvine School of Education, we found that regular participation in afterschool programs helped to narrow the achievement gap between high-income and low-income students in math, as well as improving academic grades and work habits. 

Unfortunately, just as Congress is preparing to decide the future of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, a longtime critic, Mark Dynarski, has weighed in with a blog posting citing findings from an evaluation he conducted during the early days of the program and which has little relevance to its quality today.  

What’s in danger of being lost in this debate – and what Congress must keep in mind – is that these afterschool programs, which focus on enrichment, academic outcomes, and quality improvements, are designed to develop essential skills to help youngsters succeed in life. These skills such as solving problems, thinking critically, communicating effectively and working with others, augment the academic skills kids gain in school. 

These are the skills that the nation needs to be globally competitive and that employers need from employees.  These also are the skills that affluent parents invest in in their own children by providing a rich array of afterschool activities. The 21st Century Community Learning Centers are a proven, effective way of providing low-income children with some of these same opportunities.   

The lesson is clear: Afterschool programs work. Congress should keep supporting these proven programs for the sake of our children and our country’s future. 

Vandell is a distinguished education researcher and founding dean of the School of Education at the University of California-Irvine.