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After (and Before) the Bell

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Mark Jackson

Mark Jackson with a tutor at Steps for Success.

Mark Jackson and Jamil Muhammed

Steps for Success student Mark Jackson and his life coach, Jamil Muhammed

Veronica Holly

Veronica Holly, TC doctoral student and Assistant Director of IUME.

Vivedka Borum and Students

Curriculum designer and TC doctoral student Viveka Borum (third from left) with the high school students she trains as tutors.

More time on task can boost achievement—but it’s got to be quality time

Seven-year-old Mark Jackson doesn’t fit the stereotype of an “at risk” African American male. Mark’s father, a bus operator, lives at home, and his mother is a vice president at Citibank. Mark, a public school second grader, maintains an academic average of just below 90.

Still, the Jacksons live on East 125th Street in Harlem—a neighborhood that, while fast gentrifying, remains troubled by gangs, crime, drugs and violence. And Mark—who recently brought home a “D” in conduct—is nearing the age when his interest in academics and success in school could wane.

“Research says that after third grade, the achievement gap widens for black boys, and they grow less academically during the school year than other groups, especially in mathematics,” says Veronica Holly, a TC doctoral student who serves as Assistant Director of the College’s Institute for Urban and Minority Affairs (IUME).

That’s why Mark is now attending the Steps for Success program created by the Children’s Aid Society in partnership with IUME. (Holly is the program’s Academic Director.) Twice a week after school, Mark and 51 other boys go to Wadleigh Secondary School in central Harlem for tutoring, including a program in math developed by another TC doctoral student, Viveka Borum. On Saturdays, the boys go to Teachers College for a special cultural enrichment session. Each boy also has a male, African American “life coach” who acts as a mentor, a partner in setting and reaching goals, and, in general, a guide to navigating the challenges of growing up black and male in the nation’s biggest city. The life coaches are available 24/7 to the boys and their families.

“I have to ask myself, ‘Which hat am I going to wear with this boy?’ says Jamil Muhammad, 32, Mark’s life coach. “If I have the uncle and not the dad, if the family doesn’t have money, if there are the resources but the parents don’t have the time. You bob and weave through the different intricacies of those family structures.”

A Popular Strategy

Steps for Success is one of the better programs that increase “time on task,” an increasingly popular strategy for boosting achievement among poor and minority students through after-school programs, early childhood education and longer school days.

Access to these programs varies tremendously from one community and one household to the next. So does program quality; in fact, many fail to offer what some believe students need most.

“Unfortunately, these efforts too often lack the most vital ingredient: the involvement of parents and communities,” wrote Edmund Gordon, the founding director of IUME and TC’s Richard March Hoe Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Education, in an opinion piece in the New York Times in 2005. Gordon, who in the 1950s opened one of the first comprehensive family centers in Harlem, called upon the City’s education leaders to supplement “the formal and informal learning that children receive through their families, in personal relationships and through community groups and religious institutions” and to provide “active engagement with concerned parents, parent surrogates, peers and interested adults.”

Gordon and his colleague, Beatrice Brigdlall, together with Heather Weiss and Susanne Buford of Harvard, are writing an Equity Matters research review that centers on the critical role of the family in education—its importance in human development, as educator and teacher, as education consumer and as the key focus of what Gordon calls “comprehensive education” interventions. The ultimate goal of the latter, as Gordon sees it, is “to enable families to support the academic and personal development of children.”

Meanwhile, two other research reviews by TC faculty and their students take stock of the two most common forms of supplementary education, after-school and preschool. They describe a mix of enormous potential and disappointing reality.

“Although after-school programs offer a promising avenue for improving the academic competencies of American students, it would be misguided to expect the average program to substantially improve students’ academic performance,” write Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Margo Gardner and Jodie Roth in their Equity Matters research review, “Leveling the Academic Playing Field for Disadvantaged Youth through Participation in After-School Programs.” Brooks-Gunn, Co-Director of the College’s National Center for Children and Families (NCCF), is a pioneering researcher whose own large-scale studies of families and neighborhoods have helped establish the connection between these environmental influences and the academic prospects of children.

Again, that’s the average program. Effects of after-school programs on student performance have ranged from a 27 percent increase in young people with better grades to a decrease (for children from single-parent families) in homework completion and higher rates of involvement in vandalism and substance use. Most programs fall somewhere in the middle, often resulting in better attitudes toward school, but rarely doing much to improve academic performance.

What are the components of an effective after-school program? Results from an evaluation of The After-School Corporation (TASC) suggest that more years of participation are necessary to change academic outcomes for academically at-risk kids. In the L.A.’s Best after-school programs, a third year of participation reduced likelihood of dropping out.

There’s also evidence that “those who need the most, benefit the most” from after-school programs. In TASC, black, Hispanic and low-income children showed greater gains than other participants.

Program characteristics may be the most important success factor. The TC authors divide after-school programs into those that promote youth development opportunities not available during the school day, and those that focus on extra time to master academic skills. The programs offering development opportunities are more likely to improve kids’ academic achievement, primarily because they are likelier to offer a flexible, emotionally supportive and empowering environment. For example, when Veronica Holly—a former student research coordinator under Brooks-Gunn—learned that a third grader in Steps for Success was in danger of being held back in school, she made sure he got one-on-one homework assistance and a certified teacher for tutoring on Sundays. Soon, the boy was back on track.

Parsing Pre-k

On the early childhood side, quality pre-k helps to bridge the gaps in vocabulary, math and other cognitive skills that often separate poorer children and children of color from whites by age three. Large-scale studies show that children who attended a high-quality center-based preschool perform better in kindergarten than peers who did not. The effects are larger for lower-income children and persist into first grade. The well-known studies of specific pre-k initiatives—Perry Preschool (for which Edmund Gordon approved funding back in 1965, when he was Director of Research for Head Start), the Abecedarian Project and the Chicago Child-Parent Center Program—have shown enormous life-long benefits for disadvantaged children, including lower rates of incarceration, better health and higher earnings.

Unfortunately, most children are unlikely to end up in such high-caliber programs.

“The hard reality is that quality in the majority of early childhood programs remains very low,” writes TC faculty member Sharon Lynn Kagan in her Equity Matters research review “American Early Childhood Education: Preventing or Perpetuating Inequity?” Kagan, Co-Director with Brooks-Gunn of NCCF, is an internationally recognized expert on early learning standards.

Indeed, Kagan writes, “inequity pervades early childhood education, seriously restricting who has access to services, the quality of the services themselves, the quality and competency of those who teach young children, the nature and application of regulations, the quality and thoroughness of the expectations and standards that guide pedagogy and instruction, and the amount and distribution of resources.” She confirms “socioeconomic status and race as predictors of inequity” but also finds that “state, regional and programmatic inequities are also serious and ubiquitous.” For example, in Oklahoma, over 90 percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in pre-k or Head Start programs, while New Hampshire and Nevada enroll just 13 percent of their four-year-olds. Eleven states have no preschool program for four-year-olds. And while the average Head Start allocation nationally is $7,208, Washington state spends $9,016, while Washington D.C. spends just $728.

“Unless we reconcepualize American early childhood education research and policy...our strategies, as promising as they appear, will perpetuate, not prevent, inequity and inequality,” Kagan writes.

Still, after-school and preschool programs continue to serve an enormous number of children—and when they work, good things happen.

“I don’t misbehave as much as I used to,” reports Mark Jackson. “When I go to my after-school, I don’t want to take advantage of people that I don’t really know. They keep me in check. And when I stay in check, I have a better time.”previous page