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April 1, 2001
Vol. 58
No. 7

LA's BEST—Beyond School as Usual

Instead of drilling students in narrowly defined academic skills, LA's BEST offers meaningful activities that involve many kinds of learning.

Show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while at the same time teaching me a way into the larger society—then and only then will I sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.—Ralph Ellison
Like Ralph Ellison, all students want to understand their personal experiences and to feel that they belong to society. After-school programs can play a special role in helping students realize these aspirations.
The funding of after-school programs in the United States has increased during the past several years. In 1999, for example, California allocated $83 million annually for after-school support. The 2001 U.S. federal budget has allocated an unprecedented $846 million to support after-school programs at public schools. These federal allocations have increased tenfold since 1998, making funds for after-school programs one of the fastest-growing items in the U.S. budget.
Although this unprecedented growth reflects a genuine concern about students' needs, many policymakers see schooling, instead of education, as the purpose of after-school programs. They insist that after-school programs document academic achievement, usually in the form of test scores, and that they align their programs' activities with school standards. In addition, teachers ask after-school programs to provide drills in basic skills, and companies market scripted after-school programs to work on these tasks. Many school districts want after-school programs to focus on the narrow set of academic skills and tasks that the district provides in intervention programs and summer schools. As a result, students in many after-school programs spend much time doing drills and filling in blank spaces on handouts.
Proponents of the schooling approach argue that students will learn more academic skills and learn them better if they spend more time on these skills and tasks than they already spend during the regular school day. This more is better reasoning claims that we are not achieving better test scores because we have not directed enough time and energy to a narrow set of academic skills. Few stop to consider that more of the same kind of instruction might make the problem worse, not better.
Studies of after-school learning (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999) and recent work in the science of learning and cognition tell us to travel a different road to learning. Students spend most of their waking time outside of school, and much learning takes place during that time. For example, the size of the average person's lexicon suggests that we learn many more words outside of school than inside (Pinker, 1994). What happens inside schools and classrooms matters far less in determining scores on norm-referenced tests than does socioeconomic status (Sacks, 1999). Schooling achievement, as reflected in standardized and other kinds of paper-and-pencil tests, has low predictive validity with respect to success in a student's adult life as measured by income and job performance (Levin, 1998). And students learn better when instruction builds on what they already know, teaches them how to express their ideas, and develops activities related to their interests.
Out-of-school educational settings and activities should involve many kinds of learning that differ from the narrow skills and tasks of schooling. Safe and enriching activities for students will better realize the hopes of those who have provided the political will and financial resources for after-school programs.

Education at LA's BEST

Los Angeles's Better Educated Students for Tomorrow (LA's BEST) has been an after-school program for 13 years. During the past decade, it has grown from 10 sites to 76 sites, with the largest number of new sites created in the past eight months. Funded by local, district, and federal agencies and private donations, the budget to support these activities has increased from $1 million to $14 million. LA's BEST sites now serve 13,000 students, ages 5–12, of whom nearly 81 percent are Hispanic and 11 percent are African American. Approximately 90 percent of LA's BEST students qualify for federal lunch subsidies.
Students spend from 3:00 pm until 6:00 pm in activities at LA's BEST sites, where staff members implement three important learning principles.
Build on what students already know. Students are not blank slates; they are not empty vessels. They come to educational settings with a great deal of knowledge, including ideas and theories about the world. Too often, educators assume that students know little if the students do not share the same experiences and knowledge as the teacher, especially if the students are economically poor and represent minority cultures. Rather than investigating first what students already know, educators often approach students with a preset curriculum, thereby devaluing students' previous knowledge and inhibiting student learning.
Adults at LA's BEST sites strive to enrich students' learning by finding out and building on what students already know. At a recent LA's BEST student gardening club, for example, a student with low SAT 9 scores earned respect when he disclosed how much he knew about how and when to grow corn and other vegetables. Had the LA's BEST teacher presented the students with a preset lesson about how to plant vegetables without asking what students already knew, this student's opportunity for sharing his knowledge and building his confidence may never have occurred.
Help students value their own ideas and experiences. Students are thinking all the time about what they know. They do not think about school only during class time and about their out-of-school experiences only when they are outside of school. They may not express their thoughts, however, or even be aware of what they know and are thinking about. Students need to develop metacognition, or mindfulness (Langer, 1989, 1997), which involves knowing about what and how we think, creating in turn the opportunity to acquire more knowledge.
LA's BEST staff members help students become mindful of their own thoughts. For example, just before students embarked on a project to search for community treasures, a staff member asked students to think about what they might want to record in photos about their community—an area highly vulnerable to drugs, gangs, crime, and graffiti. At first, the students could not think of anything special to include about their neighborhood, but instead of rushing to provide students with ideas, the LA's BEST teacher encouraged students to describe what they liked to see every day. Once students realized that they didn't have to follow someone else's idea about what is beautiful or interesting, they were eager to take photos of their community. The result was a book of photos about their neighborhood, which increased pride in themselves and the community.
Follow students' interests when planning activities. A personal interest in a subject motivates students to make sense of the world (Dweck, 1989). Individuals become engaged in their learning because they are interested in the subject and want to build on what they already know.
For example, a student at one of the LA's BEST sites expressed an interest in playing miniature golf—an activity too expensive for the after-school program. The seeming impracticality of the idea did not deter the teachers or the students. Instead, with the help of community vendors who sponsored each hole, the students transformed the school's playground into a miniature golf course. The project involved students in measuring, problem solving, computation, reading, language development, writing, and motor skills development. Because the project grew out of one student's interest, the motivation for completing the project and engaging in the associated academic activities was high.

Education Succeeds

A recent 10-year longitudinal study (Huang, Gibbons, Kim, Lee, & Baker, 2000) shows that student participation in LA's BEST improved school attendance, attitudes and engagement in school, and achievement as measured with norm-referenced achievement test scores.
Students who had participated in LA's BEST for at least four years showed better subsequent school attendance, and 5th and 6th graders had significantly fewer absences compared with students who did not participate in the program. Students from LA's BEST also participated more actively in school life, demonstrated positive changes in their behavior, and saw a future for themselves that included higher education. Most significant was the change in student attitudes: More than 85 percent of LA's BEST participants reported liking school more since participating in the program.
Students also reported enjoying the after-school program, especially such activities as clubs and field trips, and staff members saw their own work and its impact on students in positive terms. The classroom grades of LA's BEST students showed an overall increase of 28 percent after two years of participation in the program, with the strongest improvement in science grades. Students' achievement as measured by norm-referenced test scores also improved during their participation in the program. This improvement appeared consistently on standardized tests even though the school district changed their test assessments three times during the decade studied. LA's BEST students whose native language wasn't English were typically more likely to be redesignated as proficient speakers of English.
LA's BEST students did not perform better on the norm-referenced tests because they did more drill-and-practice activities in the after-school program. Instead, they performed better on these tests because they had gained confidence in using what they already knew, in being mindful of their thoughts and ideas, and in pursuing their own interests. They became better students at school and, more important, became better citizens of the world.
In an educational climate that stresses tougher testing measures and laments the achievement gap, it is tempting to design after-school programs that look more like school: more paper and pencils, more books, more classes, more drills. We should avoid such a temptation. The schooling road is the wrong road to travel if we want the money we are investing in after-school programs to benefit students in the most important ways possible.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Dweck, C. S. (1989). Motivation. In A. Lesgold & R. Glaser (Eds.), Foundations for a psychology of education (pp. 87–136). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Huang, D., Gibbons, B., Kim, K. S., Lee, C., & Baker, E. L. (2000). A decade of results: The impact of the LA's BEST after-school enrichment program on subsequent student achievement and performance. Los Angeles: University of California at Los Angeles, Center for the Study of Evaluation. Available: www.lasbest.org/learn/uclaeval.pdf

Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Langer, E. J. (1997). The power of mindful learning. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Levin, H. M. (1998, May). Educational performance standards and the economy. Educational Researcher, 27(4), 4–10.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. New York: William Morrow Company.

Sacks, P. (1999). Standardized minds: The high price of America's testing culture and what we can do to change it. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.

Paul E. Heckman has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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