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Activities: The Missing Variable in Many Education Reform Equations

By Bob Tryanski on December 21, 2015 hst Print

There is an ancient proverb that cautions, “to know but not to do is not really yet to know.” While some may find the simplicity of that quote to be elegant and charming, others might be alarmed to discover how frequently that ancient wisdom rings true today in America’s schools. The gap between what we know about the benefits of arts, athletics and activities and what we do to support them continues to grow.

We know, for example, that participation in school-sponsored, adult-supervised, student-driven activities increases test scores, lowers dropout rates, develops social and emotional skills, and promotes college and career readiness. Yet, the average school district spends less than three percent of its operating budget to support these programs.

We also know that participation in more than one activity can significantly reduce the risk that a student will choose to drop out of high school. In fact, researchers estimate that the United States would save $300 billion if the number of students who drop out in just one year were converted into graduates. Ironically, studies also show that the average 10th-grader spends less than one hour a week participating in school-sponsored activities. In addition, more than a million students continue to drop out every year and the impact is dramatic. More than 80 percent of America’s prisoners are high school dropouts.

Studies reveal that when students with low socioeconomic status have high exposure to the arts, they are five times less likely to drop out of high school and twice as likely to go to college, but federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities has fallen below $300 million a year compared to the more than $7 billion allotted to the National Science Foundation.

When it comes to high school sports, student-athletes are absent less often and are four times more likely to go to college than non-athletes. Research also shows that student-athletes are better at managing emotions, resolving conflicts and resisting peer pressure. But recent estimates also suggest that by the year 2020, more than one-fourth of public high schools will not offer organized sports. How do we explain the disparities and what can be done to close the gaps?

The Alliance for Student Activities (ASA) – a national coalition of education associations, student organizations, educators, parents and community leaders – is committed to answering these questions and to helping people to become more persuasive advocates for co-curricular activities. In a new series of highly engaging videos and compelling training materials, the ASA summarizes the research while repositioning activities as essential factors in preparing students to thrive. The materials also push back against skeptics who argue that activities are an unnecessary extra expense that primarily serve students who are already on track to succeed. (To preview the videos, visit www.letxequalsa.com.)

In a summary of more than two decades of research, the ASA points to more than 150 rigorous, peer-reviewed studies showing that activities can be both an effective intervention strategy and a powerful prevention tool in addressing some of the most persistent challenges in America’s schools. The studies analyze longitudinal data sets and apply rigorous statistical controls. In other words, they follow students over time, as they move through middle school and high school, then on to college and careers. The studies also compare students in similar ethnic, geographic and socio-economic groups. In one study after another, the research shows that participation in student activities correlates with positive outcomes. Here are a few of the key insights:

  • Student engagement through arts, athletics and activities has the greatest impact on students who are most at-risk. While intervention by concerned educators and other significant adults can reduce risk factors, linking that intervention to school-sponsored activities can provide some of the most effective, scalable and affordable prevention strategies available to teens in trouble.
  • When a high school student is engaged in at least two activities, for about 10 hours per week, that student is “in the zone.” Every performance metric improves with this formula, including standardized test scores, grades, attendance, graduation rates, college and career readiness, and the likelihood that the student will make responsible life choices.
  • Participants in student activities demonstrate greater leadership, social and emotional skills than non-participants. This translates into a greater likelihood of college acceptance and completion, higher earning potential, greater career success as well as increased civic engagement and community service.
  • Coaches, sponsors and advisors play a crucial role in providing teens a positive, sustained connection with a competent and caring adult. Those connections are one of the core components in current research on human thriving.
  • Student activities are a bargain. It takes a minimal financial investment to keep a student enrolled in high school, engaged in activities and succeeding academically. The investment is much less expensive than the long-term costs of underemployment, reduced earning potential, higher incarceration rates and increased public assistance needs. The “return on investment” could not be more compelling.

(To access an annotated bibliography, visit www.a4sa.org/bib.)

In addition to making the research more accessible, the ASA offers practical tools and strategies to help educators to expand and diversify their activities programs while gathering data that maps individual student engagement to critical performance metrics such as attendance, behavior and course performance. (To learn more about these cloud-based software tools, visit www.engage4schools.com.)

While national dropout statistics are an obvious concern, the research shows that activities offer a clear path to reversing the trend. Unfortunately, when it comes to funding and support, too many stakeholders say “no” to activities, arts and athletics without realizing the consequences. They reduce activities’ budgets, eliminate electives and redirect resources to support instruction and testing without realizing that they are unwittingly undermining their students’ ability to thrive. When you cut student activities out of the equation, you significantly limit your potential results.

Federal agencies, state legislators and local school boards need to review the research and recognize the significant financial benefits of co-curricular activities. When activities are seen as an essential investment instead of an extra expense, the potential for knowledge to align with practice increases exponentially.