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Three real after-school inequalities

We know countless factors affect children outside the school day, and there are many opportunities to help kids during those hours when they’re not in class.

soccer practice
There are benefits to participation in extra-curricular activities, but growth from being put in high-pressure situations is not chief among them.

Michael Diedrich

It’s not just what happens in school that matters. We know countless factors affect children outside the school day, and there are many opportunities to help kids during those hours when they’re not in class. A recent article on The Atlantic’s website attempts to address this issue, but misses the real inequalities that come with after-school activities.

It notes extracurricular participation tends to increase with income, and the author highlights five areas where she sees kids with more resources benefiting from after-school activities:

  1. They learn the benefits of winning.
  2. They learn about failure and disappointment by losing.
  3. They learn about time management.
  4. They learn how to be more adaptable.
  5. They learn to exhibit grace under pressure.
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In other words, the kids gain several personal benefits from being put in high-pressure situations. Here’s the thing that bugs me: Many kids from under-resourced backgrounds learn many of these lessons in their day-to-day lives and don’t need extracurriculars to learn how to manage stress and pressure. Often, a little less stress and pressure would do them good, but it’s a matter of scale, not skill.

Instead, here are three real inequalities that come from the class differences in extracurricular availability and participation:

  1. Building that college application. Extracurriculars are often a factor in college admissions and merit-based scholarship decisions, and sometimes it’s a student’s skill with a trumpet that makes the difference. When kids don’t have access or the time to spend on extracurriculars, their admissions chances weaken.
  2. Networking and social capital. Sometimes it’s the coach that has an in with a college, or another student’s parent with the inside scoop after their recent visit. Extracurriculars facilitate upward mobility (and reduce downward mobility), and when families in poverty can’t spare the time or money to participate, they lose out.
  3. More constructive instruction time. A well-run extracurricular provides structured paths for kids to improve, reinforcing the patterns for success in school. The skills students pick up working their way through the stresses and pressures of poverty are often more ad hoc, and don’t come with a coach’s structured plan for growth.

The class differences in extracurriculars are both a symptom and a reinforcer of other equity gaps. Increasing educational equity means expanding after-school offerings and taking steps to reduce the stresses and pressures of poverty so more kids can participate. Otherwise, these activities continue to perpetuate our gaps (if not for the reasons The Atlantic gave).

Michael Diedrich, who taught English for two years as a Teach for America corps member, is a master of public policy student at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, where he is pursuing a concentration in education policy. He is also an Education Fellow at Minnesota 2020, on whose website this article originally appeared.

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