Out-of-School Time Programs for At-Risk Students

Out-of-school time (OST) can be essential for at-risk students to develop basic academic skills. Education research lab McREL studied a variety of programs across the country to determine how OST programs are being used to help this population.

At some point in their lives, everyone has said it: there aren't enough hours in the day. For many children with learning difficulties, and their teachers, this old maxim rings all too true. When children fall behind in a content area or areas, there may not be sufficient time in the school day to offer the remedial instruction necessary to get them up to speed. One potential solution for making up this deficit is out-of-school time, or OST, programs.

As the name implies, out-of-school time programs are targeted to the hours that school-age children are not in school. The most common OST formats are afterschool and summer-school programs. Researchers also have studied before-school and Saturday school programs.

In 2001, 6 million of the 54 million K-8 children in the United States participated in afterschool programs (De Kanter, 2001). These programs were either community-sponsored afterschool programs or school-based extended-day programs. Between 1994 and 2001, the number of schools offering afterschool programs doubled (De Kanter, 2001).

But according to the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (2004), millions of children between the ages of 6 and 12 do not participate in any kind of adult-supervised afterschool activity. Advocates of afterschool programs have noted that there is increasing public support for the development and funding of afterschool programs in public schools (The After-School Corporation, 1999; Fashola, 2002).

This article provides historical background on OST programs in the United States, a look at the context within which OST programs are now being developed, and an overview of the body of available OST research.

The Evolution of OST Programs

Though out-of-school time programs as we now know them (e.g., afterschool, summer school) were not fully implemented in the United States until the 1970s and 1980s, the roots of OST run far deeper, extending as far back as the late 1800s (Harvard Family Research Project, 2000). Out-of-school time programs first began to receive federal funding during World War II, when the U.S. government began funding afterschool programs as a means of providing childcare for women entering the workforce for the first time. Government funding of these programs ceased with the end of the war, when many women again left the workforce.

In the 1950s, formal summer school programs emerged, originally as a potential solution for the prevention of behavior problems. Summer school administrators, however, quickly began to see these program sessions as a good avenue for remediation.

A number of societal factors have been cited by researchers as affecting the push to create summer school programs reflecting an academic emphasis, including:

  1. family influences (e.g., maternal employment and single parent households),
  2. the need for the United States to maintain a globally competitive education system, and
  3. the emphasis on rigorous learning standards and minimum student proficiency requirements.

Cooper, Charlton, Valentine, and Muhlenbruck (2000) contend that, although additional purposes of summer school programs will likely continue to be identified, their focus on academic remediation will probably always remain.

Historically, meeting the needs of low-income children has been a primary reason for the development of OST programs, particularly afterschool programs. Because safety tends to be a greater concern in low-income neighborhoods than it is in middle-income neighborhoods, there is a greater need for low-income children's out-of-school time to be supervised by adults. However, children from low-income families are less likely to have afterschool caregivers available in their homes.

The push to "even the odds" for the nation's low-income children began to pick up momentum in the 1960s. During his 1964 Presidential campaign, Lyndon Johnson spoke of an America "where no child will go unfed and no youngster will go unschooled." Title I of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act was created in part because of data indicating that low-income children are at risk for academic failure. It became evident that low-income children were in need of additional educational time to supplement what they experienced during regular school hours (Cooper et al., 2000; Borman & D'Agostino, 1996).

Despite concerns that afterschool programs that emphasized academics would interfere with time spent in play, these programs have become the norm as educators search for ways to meet the needs of their low-income or otherwise at-risk students (Halpern, 2002). Concerns about the social needs of children have, in many cases, led to the incorporation of social components into OST programs.

Recent developments in education legislation will likely intensify the discussion about the potential benefit of OST programs to increase the achievement of at-risk students. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, all schools and states are held accountable for ensuring that all students reach or exceed each state's proficient level of performance in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-2014 school year.

States are required to report disaggregated scores for a number of student subgroups, including economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, students from major racial and ethnic groups, and students with limited English proficiency. Disaggregating scores in this manner provides a clearer picture of the progress of different groups of students – information educators can use to target and refine educational programs, including programs outside the traditional school day.

Past Research

A wealth of research on OST programs has been conducted over the years. These studies are as varied as the programs themselves. Most of the studies have focused on a specific program or program type, but all have shared the goal of distilling information about what makes a particular program effective. Because of the large number of studies of OST programs, this section is limited to descriptions of reviews and syntheses of OST research.

The first of these is a comprehensive synthesis of summer school research conducted by Cooper and his colleagues (Cooper et al., 2000). Cooper et al. reviewed 93 program studies to better understand the effects of summer school on student achievement. Their results indicated that summer school had positive academic effects on both middle-income and low-income students.

Positive effects on student performance also were found for programs for smaller numbers of students and for programs that provided students with individualized and small-group instruction. Cooper et al. also found that students in the early elementary and secondary grades benefited more from summer school classes compared to students in late elementary grades.

McComb and Scott-Little (2003) provide a narrative review of 27 studies of afterschool programs. By comparing study results, they concluded that large variations in program content, size, goals, and research designs prevented a simple answer to the question about the effects of afterschool programs on academic outcomes. Instead, they focused their discussion on the conditions that favored positive student outcomes.

For example, there were indications that low-achieving students benefited more from OST programs than did high-achieving students, and that students who attended the programs more frequently benefited more. Overall, however, the authors were not able to reach any strong conclusions.

The lack of research to support conclusions also was reported in an earlier afterschool synthesis conducted by Fashola (1998), who reviewed evaluations of 34 programs delivered in extended-day or afterschool formats. The author concluded that the research reveals many promising approaches but that it is limited in the information it can provide.

Miller (2003) reported on a comprehensive narrative review of afterschool programs for middle school children. The purpose of Miller's report was to examine the roles of afterschool programs in promoting academic success and positive early adolescent development. Miller described the effects of different afterschool programs on academic outcomes and on outcomes that Miller and others connect with academic success, such as students' attitudes toward school. Although the report provided valuable information related to all facets of how afterschool programs can benefit adolescent development, questions about specific effects on achievement in reading and mathematics were left unanswered.

One study of OST programs that received national attention is the first-year evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program (U.S. Department of Education, 2003). Congress authorized this program in 1994 to promote broader use of schools by communities and, in 1998, redesigned the program to provide academic as well as recreational activities to students outside of regular school hours. The first-year evaluation compared the academic and developmental outcomes of elementary and middle school students who attended a 21st Century program with those who did not attend.

In general, first-year findings were discouraging. No significant impacts on achievement were found in reading or mathematics for elementary or middle school students. As a result, it is not possible to link a specific 21st Century program to outcomes of the students served by that program. As the authors (U.S. Department of Education, 2003) noted, "The study was designed to examine the characteristics and outcomes of typical programs and did not attempt to define the characteristics of the best programs."

In a footnote they added, "This study focuses on school-based programs that are part of the 21st Century program. Results do not extrapolate to all afterschool programs in general." In other words, the evaluation sought to address the effectiveness of the 21st Century grant program as a funding source and not the effectiveness of afterschool strategies in general.

Proposed funding cuts to the program as a result of the first-year evaluation drew criticism from some researchers and evaluators of OST programs, who contended that one year of findings was an insufficient basis on which to pass judgment about program effectiveness (Harvard Family Research Project, 2003). A number of critics have called for consolidating knowledge gleaned from many individual evaluations to better approximate the effects of afterschool interventions, the approach used for McREL's synthesis.

Second-year findings for the 21st Century grant program were released in October 2004 (Dynarski et al., 2004). Some positive effects were reported. For example, middle school social studies achievement was higher, and elementary school students reported higher feelings of safety. Overall findings were consistent with the first-year evaluation, however.

Reactions to the second-year findings have not yet been widespread, making the impact of this evaluation unclear. Also, it is important to note that despite the controversy over the initial evaluation, these studies are making an important contribution to our knowledge about OST programs by documenting the great variation in the characteristics of programs across school districts, particularly in the range of activities offered and in the relative emphasis on academic assistance.

The McREL Out-of-School Time Research Review

McREL recently completed a review of research on OST programs for at-risk students (Lauer et al., 2004). The impetus for this work was the "supplemental services" provision of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which requires that states offer supplementary education services to low-income students in Title I schools that do not achieve adequate yearly progress. Because instruction for supplementary services must occur outside the regular school day, there is interest among educators in the effectiveness of OST strategies for improving studentachievement.

After reviewing thousands of studies, McREL researchers identified 27 reading studies and 33 mathematics studies that met the rigorous design criteria required for inclusion in the synthesis. Each of these studies compares an OST treatment of at-risk public school students to the performance of program non-participants. McREL's synthesis contributes to the knowledge base about OST strategies for low-achieving or at-risk students in the following ways:

  • By examining research on OST strategies delivered in all timeframes, including summer school, after school, extended day, before school, vacation sessions, and Saturday schools.
  • By including the results of separate analyses of the effectiveness of OST strategies for student achievement in reading and in mathematics.
  • By including studies only if the design involved a comparison group of students who did not experience the OST strategy under investigation.
  • Studies were coded for alignment with criteria of research quality, and synthesis results were described in relationship to these ratings.

An important point to keep in mind is that McREL's review of the research focused on whether or not OST programs provided benefits specifically for at-risk students. To qualify for inclusion in the synthesis, the study had to examine the effectiveness of an OST strategy for low-achieving students or students at risk for school failure. The study could include students performing at other achievement levels, but it had to disaggregate effects for those entering an OST program with low achievement or at risk for low achievement.

McREL's goal was to assess the effectiveness of OST strategies for those students who are most likely to need them. Low achievement could be determined by student performance on standardized tests or classroom assessments or through teacher-assigned grades or recommendation for assistance. At-risk status could be determined by characteristics typically associated with lower student achievement and school dropout in largescale data collections including low socioeconomic status (SES), racial or ethnic minority background, a single parent family, a mother with a low level of education, and limited proficiency in English (Slavin & Madden, 1989; Miller, 1993).

McREL's analysis of the available research pointed to small overall positive effects in both reading and mathematics programs. Within the synthesis, impacts were reported as effect sizes. For this document, however, the effect sizes have been converted into percentile point gains. The synthesis authors identified an average 5 percentile point gain for reading and a 6.5 percentile point gain for mathematics programs. Put another way, a student scoring at the 50th percentile in reading, who attained average gains from an OST program, would increase his or her achievement to the 55th percentile. For students scoring close to proficiency cut scores, such a gain could be quite significant.

More important, McREL's review of the research identified specific program characteristics and approaches associated with improvements in reading and in mathematics. This information can be used by OST program leaders to inform program design and implementation.


Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

The After-School Corporation. (1999). Afterschool programs: An analysis of need, current research, and public opinion. Retrieved August 13, 2003, from http://www.tascorp.org

Borman, G. D., & D'Agostino, J. V. (1996). Title I and student achievement: A metaanalysis of federal evaluation results. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 18(4), 309-326.

Cooper, H., Charlton, K., Valentine, J. C., & Muhlenbruck, L. (2000). Making the most of summer school: A meta-analytic and narrative review. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Serial No. 260, 65(1).

De Kanter, A. (2001). After-school programs for adolescents. NAASP Bulletin, 85(626), 12-21.

Dynarski, M, James-Burdumy, S., Moore, M., Rosenberg, L., Deke, J., & Mansfield, W. (2004). When schools stay open late: The national evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.

Fashola, O. S. (1998). Review of extended-day and after-school programs and their effectiveness (Report No. 24). Baltimore, MD: Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk. Retrieved July 2, 2003, from http://www.gse.uci.edu/asp/aspeval/resources/Report_24_Fashola.pdf

Fashola, O. S. (2002). Building effective afterschool programs. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Halpern, R. (2002). A different kind of child development institution: The history of after-school programs for low-income children. Teachers College Record, 104(2), 178-211. Retrieved May 28, 2003, from http://www.tcrecord.org/pdf/10823.pdf

Harvard Family Research Project. (2000). Questions & answers: Interview with Michelle Selligson. The Evaluation Exchange 6(1). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard University. Retrieved October 1, 2004, from http://www.gse.harvard.edu/hfrp/content/eval/issue15/evalex15.pdf

Harvard Family Research Project. (2003, spring). The Evaluation Exchange Special Report on the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program National Evaluation [Special Report]. Compiled by Priscilla Little. The Evaluation Exchange, IX(1). Retrieved August 31, 2003, from http://www.gse.harvard.edu/~hfrp/eval/issue21/special.html

Lauer, P. A., Akiba, M., Wilkerson, S. B., Apthorp, H. S., Snow, D., & Martin-Glenn, M. (2004). The effectiveness of out-of-schooltime strategies in assisting low-achieving students in reading and mathematics: A research synthesis (Updated ed.). Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

McComb, E. M., & Scott-Little, C. (2003). After-school programs: Evaluations and outcomes. Greensboro, NC: SERVE.

Miller, B. M. (2003). Critical hours: Afterschool programs and educational success. Brookline, MA: Miller Midzik Research Associates for the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. Retrieved June 15, 2003, from http://www.nmefdn.org/CriticalHours.htm

Miller, D. E. (1993). The literature project: Using literature to improve the self-concept of at-risk adolescent females. Journal of Reading, 36(6), 442-448.

National Institute on Out-of-School Time. (2004). Making the case: A fact sheet on children and youth in out-of-school time. Retrieved October 15, 2004, from http://www.niost.org/

Slavin, R. E., Karweit, N. L., & Madden, N. A. (1989). Effective programs for students at risk. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

U. S. Department of Education. (2003). When schools stay open late: The national evaluation of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. First year findings. (No. PR02- 82). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary.

Miller, K., Snow, D., and Lauer, P. (2004). Noteworthy Perspectives: Out-of-School Time Programs for At-Risk Students. McREL: Aurora, Colorado.


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