Toward the end of the administration of former President Bill Clinton, Mark Dynarski, the founder of Pemberton Research and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, began working with the U.S. Department of Education to assess what kinds of results 21st Century Learning centers achieved. They released three different reports between 2003 and 2005. The results were not encouraging. “The program didn’t affect student outcomes,” Dynarski explained in a Brookings article in 2015. “Except for student behavior, which got worse.”
David Muhlhausen, a research fellow in empirical policy analysis at the Heritage Foundation, also questions the environment of those centers, the academic results, and whether the child-care aspect is valuable. He pointed to performance reports that show that the program isn’t meeting its goals, and Dynarski’s research on 21st Century Learning Centers as evidence, during an interview. “It’s a place to have their kids while the parents are at work,” Muhlhausen said. “That's the real key to these programs and why they’re popular—not that they provide any benefits to the students. It’s basically a babysitting program for parents who aren't home.”
To further complicate things, since that 2005 report, the nation’s federal education law has transformed: Dynarski’s study began during the Clinton era and finished during No Child Left Behind, while the current program exists under the Every Student Succeeds Act. And while he acknowledges that new data on the program has been released since his 2005 evaluation, none of it has been comprehensive enough to develop conclusions about the success of the current iteration of the program. “You just end up stuck because you have evidence that an old program was not effective,” Dynarski said in an interview. “You have no new evidence, so you don’t know what to say about the current [program]. So, you’re trying to build a view of what might have changed, and you’re trying to infer from these vague indicators what’s gotten better.”
But a lack of conclusive evidence doesn’t mean that no participants see academic improvements. The department continues to monitor centers throughout the country, and the 2013-14 evaluation notes some positive trends. Nearly a third of regular attendees reported improvement in English and math grades (though that trend didn’t hold in terms of state assessments), and nearly half of all participants improved in class participation and completion.
Those evaluations are bolstered by multiple reports from other sources—often examining particular programs, states or cities—that have shown these learning centers help children. In addition to studies surrounding after-school programs as a whole, statewide evaluations specifically examining 21st Century Learning Centers from Washington, Wisconsin, Texas, and Rhode Island, for example, saw improvements in a variety of indicators, from test scores to behavior. “We think the evidence that [the OMB is] looking at is research that was done on a program that does not exist today,” explains Jen Rinehart, the senior vice president for policy and research at the Afterschool Alliance, an organization that advocates for access to after-school programs. “There’s so much other research that has been conducted in this space that is counter to what that previous research indicated.”