By Xiao Liang

After-school programs in the United States can be traced back to the late 19th century, developed from historical changes in children’s participation in the labor force market, the introduction of formal schooling, and increased attention to children’s safety issues. With the boom in more after-school activities, parents, communities, and policymakers are increasingly concerned about the effectiveness of these programs. Meanwhile, research shows that although test scores have increased across all racial/ethnic groups in the last few decades, access to equitable educational opportunities among different socioeconomic backgrounds has not led to improvement in overall educational outcomes. Therefore, after-school programs deserve the attention of researchers and policymakers to improve upon them as an effective supplement to the classroom.

The 2021-2022 NJ School Performance Reports highlighted gaps in academic achievement among New Jersey students. According to the report, students in New Jersey failed to meet the annual target in both the New Jersey Student Learning Assessment and the Dynamic Learning Maps alternate assessment for English language arts and mathematics. Furthermore, After School Alliance data demonstrates the persistent need for more after-school programs and support for existing after-school programs in New Jersey. For every child in an after-school program, there are three more who would participate in it if there was one available to them. Among students in after-school programs, 89% of them are getting help with homework, and 77% are participating in STEM learning opportunities. Between current academic achievement gaps and the demonstrated desire for after-school programs among NJ students, after-school programs can be a tool for closing the achievement gap.

Through reviewing educational literature on this topic, research supports the role that after-school programs play in academic performance. For example, Budd et al. (2020) found that while there was no consistent evidence showing that after-school programs led to improved academic outcomes, longer participation in the program was associated with more growth in multiple academic outcomes. For students who participated in programs and enrolled for more than one year, there was a 7-percentile-point increase in state test scores per year of program enrollment. This work confirms that long-term enrollment in academic-focused after-school programs positively impacts students’ academic performance.

Based on these findings, my literature review develops three recommendations for developing effective and targeted after-school programs, known as the 3Es: Engagement, Equity, and Evaluation. Aside from students and parents, more policymakers should engage a diverse group of stakeholders in developing and enhancing after-school programs, including teachers, tutors, and community organizations. This ensures that every participant has an equal chance to make their voice heard. Additionally, research has found that outcomes of after-school programs such as homework completion, higher-order thinking, content knowledge, and study habits should also be evaluated. Through these steps, policymakers can develop after-school programs to meet the state’s goals for academic performance and increase equitable educational outcomes.

Xiao Liang is a graduate student in the Master of Public Affairs/Community Development program at Rutgers-Camden. Xiao was also a part of the NJSPL’s 2023 Summer Internship Program.