The Academic Value of Extracurricular Activities

With school districts struggling to balance the books, should schools be funding extracurricular activities such as ping-pong and knitting clubs?

A growing body of research says there is a link between afterschool activities and graduating from high school, going to college, and becoming a responsible citizen, writes June Kronholz at Education Next.

Kronholz, who is a contributing editor at Education Next, having spent 30 years at the Wall Street Journal and, while in education, 4 years on her high-school newspaper, believes extracurricular activities are important.

The Department of Education last compiled data on extracurricular activities a decade ago, when it reported that more than half the country’s high-school sophomores participated in sports, that one-fifth were in a school-sponsored music group, and that cheerleading and drill teams, hobby, academic, and vocational clubs each involved about 10 percent of kids, writes Kronholz.

At affluent suburban schools, the choice of activities can be dizzying. Walt Whitman High School in Maryland offers 89 clubs, 26 sports, seven choral ensembles, seven bands or orchestras, a newspaper, a literary magazine, and a yearbook last year.

Whitman says that 96 percent of its students go to college; its SAT scores in math and critical reading are 250 points above the national average.

Data show that kids from families in the top third by income and education are half again as likely to take part in sports and almost twice as likely to participate in music as kids from the bottom third. Almost 80 percent of the adults in Whitman’s zip code are college graduates, and the median household income is three times the U.S. average.

The data also show that kids with the highest test scores are the most active in afterschool activities. Two-thirds of kids in the top quarter of test takers played sports, for example, compared to less than half in the lowest quarter.

Kronholz asks whether the issue is causation or correlation:

“Did kids who joined afterschool activities become good students, or did good students join afterschool activities?”

Kronholz cites Margo Gardner, a research scientist at Columbia University’s National Center for Children and Families (NSCF), who, using data from the 1988 National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS), and controlling for poverty, race, gender, test scores, and parental involvement, has calculated that the odds of attending college were 97 percent higher for youngsters who took part in school-sponsored activities for two years than for those who didn’t do any school activities.

The odds of completing college were 179 percent higher, and the odds of voting eight years after high school, a proxy for civic engagement, were 31 percent higher.

Three times as many had a GPA of 3.0 or higher; twice as many scored in the top quarter on math and reading tests. And 68 percent expected to get a college degree, compared to 48 percent of kids who weren’t involved in school activities, writes Kronholz.

However, after years of steady increases in education spending, and with the expiry of federal stimulus funds, school districts are facing some unaccustomed belt-tightening this year. K–12 spending rose 39 percent between the 1989–90 and the 2007–2008 school years, according to the U.S. Census bureau, and hit $605 billion in 2009, the latest year for which it has reported numbers.

It’s no surprise that extracurriculars are in for some pain, too, writes Kronholz. And she believes that’s a shame.

“Honestly, the place that best prepared me for college was the hardwood court of men’s varsity basketball” in high school, said Andrew Snow, a University of Michigan senior and pre-law major who spoke to Kronholz.

“That court taught me hard work, sacrifice, teamwork, humility…and leadership,” he added, plus, “how to deal with people in social situations” and “responsibility off the court [because] if you made a bad decision, someone would see it.”

Tony Wagner, codirector of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education said:

“Kids who have a 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.”

I’d rise to the defense of Algebra I any day, and I assume any social scientist would, too, writes Kronholz.

“But, leadership, adaptability, social skills? Try a couple years on the school newspaper to learn that.”

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