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Out-of-School Activities Play Role in Helping Close Achievement Gap, Experts Say

WASHINGTON— Public policies that help communities provide the spaces and activities for after-school play, exploration, and social interaction should help close racial, ethnic and economic achievement gaps, according to experts at an Educational Testing Service (ETS) conference Monday.


Researchers and educators said in the current system, children are showing deficiencies in both cognitive skills like literacy and noncognitive ones, such as goal-setting, that bolster academic success. As enriching playtime and after-school programs are reduced, they have called for reform not only inside the classroom but outside as well.


Dr. Edmund W. Gordon, a leading researcher of supplemental, or complementary, education, said during the opening session of the ETS 12th Addressing Achievement Gaps Symposium that improving student achievement includes reaping the benefits of nonschool activities that stimulate learning beyond the brick and mortar.


“We cannot depend so heavily on schools,” Gordon said, adding that education reform should be viewed as a public health issue that challenges the public to respond to growing education needs at every level of society.


The chronic achievement gaps among lower-income, immigrant, and racial and ethnic minority children can be bridged, Gordon said, with formal and informal educational opportunities that link families and communities.


Supplemental-education services are not new, Gordon said, adding that a body of research supports its positive outcomes but such services are not available to everyone. Gordon is a professor emeritus of psychology at both Columbia University’s Teachers College and Yale University.


Heather Weiss, founder and director of the Harvard Family Research project, presented various methods for aligning out-of school initiatives with in-class education during the first day of the two-day conference.


“What happens out of school needs to complement what happens in school,” she said.


“Leave no child inside,” was the message from an 11-minute clip of the PBS documentary “Where Do The Children Play?” based on author and lecturer Elizabeth Goodenough’s work at the University of Michigan.


The film linked the reduction of free time and play to documented increases in stress, depression, violence and overmedication among today’s youth.


Sometimes just wrestling with your children is enough to build their brains, said Walter Leaf, Goodenough’s husband who introduced the documentary. Leaf said there has been a 37 percent reduction in free time in school, a development said to stifle the emotional growth of children who miss out on learning teamwork, negotiation and imagination.


Among disadvantaged groups, obtaining the personnel support, the locations, and the time for supervised play are severely limited, causing these children to find recreation indoors on television or on the Internet.


Leveling the playing field is the challenge, Weiss said, and extending the school day or school year using the same system is not the solution. However, she noted that the federal government could lead efforts for equity with dollars.


Critics, nonetheless, are concerned about enlarging role the federal government has in private lives and question whether facilitating out-of-school education in general should be a federal duty.


Arguing that it is a family responsibility, Arthur Rothkopf, senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said his own experience taught him play time is crucial to educational development but government intervention could serve as a blunt instrument where a scalpel is needed.


“I’m skeptical whether or not the federal government, which has been moderately successful with public education in the classroom, will be able to intervene outside the classroom,” Rothkopf said.


In grappling with the question of the federal role, Weiss emphasized the importance of engaging the local community to help stimulate children once they leave school. Darlene Pierce, director of awards at the American Association of School Administration, thinks a bifurcated approach could lift all American children from underperformance.


“Some of the families need a lot of help and the federal government can play a role to bring finances to help,” Pierce said. “Local school districts can help watch these families who have these difficulties.”

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