The 1,000-student Salida, Colo., school district faces a looming $500,000 budget gap. Like many other school systems, the first cuts are to be made with programs like Key Club, Math Counts, the jazz program and weight lifting. A Towanda, Pa., school district faced a similar situation. The administration responded by asking student households to contribute $30 to help keep some of the programs. Due to an overwhelming negative response to the response, they cut programs instead, including the junior robotics club, JV soccer, majorettes and reduced funding for the forensics team and Future Business Leaders by half.
Schools now are considering extending the academic school day, allowing for more instructional time and less extracurricular time. Increased "seat time" is associated with increased learning. A growing amount of research is linking the level of engagement of students in their work to increased academic success, not how long you spend in your "seat" in class. A key to this engagement is called self-efficacy, which is defined as "the conviction that one can successfully execute the behavior required to produce the desired outcome" (Bandura, 1997). In other words, students believe they have the ability to be successful at what they attempt to achieve.
Margo Gardner, a research scientist at Columbia University's National Center for Children and Families researched data from a 1988 National Education Longitudinal Study to explore the impact of after school programs. She found that for students participating in these programs: they were 97 percent more likely to attend college than those not participating in activities, were 179 percent more likely to complete college than non-participants, and were more viewed as more civically engaged due to being 31 percent more likely to vote in an election within eight years of graduation. Extracurricular activities significantly improved a student's self efficacy.
The National Center for Educational Statistics compared students involved in after-school activities to those that are not. They found after-school program participants are: three times more likely to have a 3.0 grade point average or higher, two times more likely to be in the top 25 percent of their class and 68 percent were expected to get a college degree compared to 48 percent of the non-participants.
Tony Wagner is the co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. He conducted focus groups with college students who graduated from a leading high school in New England. When asked to describe their meaningful experiences from high school from either sports/extracurricular activities and academics, a vast majority of the time was spent discussing the sports/extracurricular experiences. Coupled with Wagner's other research his conclusion was, "Kids who have significant involvement in an extracurricular activity have a capacity for focus, self-discipline and time management that I see lacking in kids who just went through school focused on their GPA."
As we explore ways to increase the effectiveness of our education system, it is important to focus on how we can effectively engage each child. Data shows that extracurricular activities are a vital component of overall academic success. As budgets get cut, extracurricular activities should not be the first programs on the chopping block. In addition, communities need to consider adding additional financial support to keep these impactful programs in place. Research illustrates this choice provides a "big bang for your buck."
Editor's note: Steve Patchin is the director of the Center for Pre-College Outreach at Michigan Technological University.