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Mind the Widening Gap

By Tiffani Razavi, TIE Staff Writer
Mind the Widening Gap

The growing inequality in the U.S. in education outcomes between students from high- and low-income families is well documented, and typically focuses on disparities in levels of academic achievement. In the last several decades, as a group, low-income students have performed less well than high-income students on a range of measures, including grades, high school completion rates, and standardized test scores. Findings suggest that these income-related differences are growing more stark over time.
While the finger of blame has often been pointed at schools—for failing to play the role of great equalizer through the provision of adequate opportunities to learn and develop—there is evidence to indicate that the gap is already large when children start kindergarten, and that it is accompanied by a related trend over the last 20 years in participation in extracurricular activities. Not only are income-based differences growing in this arena, as in so many others, but the disparity is fueling the achievement gap.
Using data collected from the 1970s until the present, researchers from Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform examined trends in extracurricular participation in children in the U.S., with “alarming” findings: “while upper-middle class students have become more active in school clubs and sports teams since the 1970s, working-class students have become increasingly disengaged and disconnected, their participation rates plummeting in the 1990s and remaining low ever since.”
In theory, public schools provide equal access to extracurricular activities, but budget cuts and deficits mean that in practice many districts have reduced provision of drama, music, and sports programs, leaving low-income students without any real opportunity to engage in these kinds of activities.
Referring to data from the national Survey of Children’s Health, the Annenberg report notes that low-income youth are more likely to grow up in social settings where substance abuse, violence, and teen pregnancy are common, and where adult supervision and guidance are relatively weak. These are the very adolescents, then, who stand to benefit most from the focus and direction of afterschool activities that could serve to channel them away from destructive influences and experiences, as well as raise their expectations and nurture pro-social skill sets.
Research shows that participation in extracurricular activities helps young people to develop the knowledge, skills, habits, and personal connections that are conducive to academic success, getting a job, and civic involvement. Even after taking into account family background and cognitive ability, participation in afterschool activities is predictive of higher grades and higher rates of college enrollment and completion; beyond formal education, there are correlations with higher salaries and career advancement, and engagement with the community through volunteer work. Not surprisingly, there is also a link with higher self-discipline and self-esteem, and lower levels of risky and antisocial behavior. Evidence from Australia suggests that the reduction in engagement in risky behaviors may be especially true for girls from low-income families.
The authors of the Annenberg report stress the importance of the development of “soft skills,” such as perseverance, teamwork, and resilience, which are just as important as cognitive abilities and more traditional measures of academic performance in predicting educational attainment and successful employment. They note that “today’s employers look for workers who arrive on time, complete their assigned tasks, work well with others, and show initiative,” and argue that it is in large measure extra-curricular activity that instills “the skills and values that matter most for upward mobility.”
Apart from the activities themselves, involvement in afterschool programs also generally provides young people with the opportunity to connect with adults outside their immediate family, often giving rise to either formal or informal mentoring. Such mentoring can have significant effects on short- and long-term outcomes, including drug and alcohol use and skipping school, higher average grades, and self-assessed academic competence.
Little wonder, then, that the researchers express concern about the trend towards “pay to play,” which places the burden of the cost of participation in extracurricular activities on families. They cite several examples of U.S. school districts implementing participation fees for sports, choir, band, and theater, fees which disproportionately disadvantage children from low-income families.
The U.S. is not alone in the activity gap phenomenon, but its statistics seem to demonstrate the trend most acutely. A cursory search indicates that Australia tends in the same direction, with lower participation in afterschool activities according to parental income, while in Canada, the correlation between income and participation in afterschool activities holds true for children up to age 13, but not through middle and high school. Interestingly, a study in India (confined to one district) shows no overall difference between students attending government schools compared to those at private schools in terms of extracurricular participation across a range of activities, although some areas of difference exist in the form and possibly the quality of the activity.
Omitting extracurricular experiences from the range of opportunities to which children from every socio-economic background are exposed is a serious problem, not only for the individuals who miss out, but in relation to longer-range social outcomes. It is generally accepted that education is an essential requirement for economic and social advancement, and that failure to provide the basics jeopardizes progress and quality of life. In highlighting the importance of extracurricular activities, and the need for young people to have access to opportunities for positive personal and interpersonal development, the Annenberg report is a timely reminder to educators and policy-makers to acknowledge the range of experiences and skills that constitute truly adequate provision. l

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