looking beyond test scores in defense of after school programs

The Trump administration has proposed cutting funding for a program that provides after school programs for low-income students. At the Atlantic, Leah Askarinam defends the programs. I’m on board with continuing to fund them, but I find her defense counterproductive.

Askarinam’s argument is kind of strange. The Brookings Institution ran several large-n studies in the middle of the aughts that showed, without much ambiguity at all, that the quantitative learning gains from these programs are minimal. Askarinam fixates on the age of those studies as a reason to question their validity. It’s true that the latest study on the efficacy of these programs is about a decade old, which isn’t ideal, but also isn’t unusual; it’s really hard, far harder than most people think, to run effective large-scale social science research projects. More to the point, why would we assume that something fundamental has changed in the outcomes of these programs in the past 10 years? She notes that the federal policy situation was different then, but that hardly seems to be sufficiently explanatory for me – the federal education policy situation changes all the time, without seeing systematic differences in student outcomes. (Indeed, the irrelevance of federal education policy to student outcomes is the source of great lamentation.) Consider the standard here: if ten+ year old studies had shown robust learning gains, would Askarinam now say that they were too old to be trusted? Such a standard would cut both ways, after all.

And while it’s true that absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, absence of evidence is… absence of evidence. Askarinam offers some anecdotal evidence of academic improvement, discusses internal research, and speaks generally of gains not captured by those older studies. That’s fine as far as it goes, but none of it amounts to responsible evidence for the kind of quantitative gains the Brooking studies were looking for. More study is needed, obviously – you can use that phrase like a comma when you’re talking about ed research – but as with pre-K programs, I think if the question is “are test score and other quantitative gains in outcomes sufficient to justify the expense of publicly-funded after school programs?,” the answer is clearly no.

So am I opposed to funding for after school programs? No, not at all. I just think we should fund them for defensible reasons. Askarinam quotes David Muhlhausen of the conservative Heritage Foundation, “It’s a place to have their kids while the parents are at work,” Muhlhausen said. “That’s the real key to these programs and why they’re popular—not that they provide any benefits to the students. It’s basically a babysitting program for parents who aren’t home.”

Sounds good to me.

The birth of publicly-funded, federally-guaranteed education for children aged 5-18 was one of the greatest advancements in human well-being in history. It helped move millions of children into formal education, providing not only the various benefits of schooling to them but also the essential ancillary benefit of childcare. This in turn made it easier for both parents to work. While we might lament the fact that it’s now necessary for most households to have two incomes to survive, the fact is that it is necessary, and without the free childcare that public schools provide, family life would be impossible for much of the country. Public education also helps our slow, imperfect march towards gender equality. And in a world where digital technologies make it easier and easier to avoid interacting with people who are outside our immediate familial and friend networks, formal schooling can help make the kinds of connections between people from radically different backgrounds that are essential for a functioning democracy.

The cost of these programs is around $1 billion a year, or about one quarter of one percent of what we’ve spent on the failed F-35 jet project in the past 15 years.

In an era of stagnant real incomes for most workers and spiraling costs of housing, healthcare, and higher education, programs that provide safe supervision for children are worth supporting. “Traditional values” conservatives should embrace programs that make child rearing feasible for more families; liberals and leftists should appreciate expanding government assistance and taking more social goods (like childcare) out of the market.

Askarinam’s defensiveness, it seems to me, reflects the way that the widespread acceptance of test score obsession has boxed us in. Too many well-meaning progressives have adopted this reductive view of the purpose of education; they then end up unable to defend programs they favor when the results of those programs on test scores are inevitably small or nonexistent. The universal pre-K debate is a perfect example. The endless back-and-forth involves credible arguments from both supporters and skeptics, but few would question that the test score and other quantitative gains we’re arguing over are modest. So stop arguing through that frame. As long as test scores are taken as the criterion of interest, we’ll be playing defense. Instead, we should argue that the basic benefit of pre-K and after school programs is to provide essential childcare support to struggling families, and to provide social and personal enrichment that has value even if uncorrelated with test score increases. We need to expand our definitions of the purpose of education outside of the quantitative, rather than staying rooted in a frame that often doesn’t help us. Askarinam describes an after school program that offers social and emotional health benefits. That’s worth fighting for on its own. So articulate that case, and do the same with pre-K. Argue from strength, not weakness.