(Competitive) Afterschool Activities and Inequality: More Thoughts

While my favorite part of having now published a book is hearing what people think (even though I recently got my first not-so-great Amazon review) after they have read the whole book, I also love connecting with those who may never read the book by publishing pieces connected to the book. Of course, any short article is but a piece of the larger puzzle; I absolutely loved how Stephanie Sprenger described Playing to Win in her second entry about it as part of The Brilliant Book Club: Illuminating Reads for Parents (all links available to the ten entries here). On her blog Mommy, for Real Sprenger wrote: "Let me explain something about this book: it has many, many layers. Playing to Win is an extremely comprehensive, well-researched, insight-laden look at competitive activities for children in America. There is simply no way that any of us can include every aspect of the book in our posts; Playing to Win considers social class, race, gender, and other factors that I am choosing not to include in my own post, rather than risk losing all of you with a 4000 word missive." So it's not surprising that my most recent piece at The Atlantic EDU understandably left a few things out, and I'd like to clarify a bit since I have received many emails, comments, and press coverage about it-- as I did the last time an Atlantic piece I did generated lots of conversation.

First of all, many were upset about the headline, "After-School Activities Make Educational Inequality Even Worse." They read this as I argue that afterschool activities should be disbanded. This is of course not my position at all! I find many, many useful benefits to participation-- so much so that I believe more kids should have access to the opportunities they provide. The problem, as it were, is that many schools (especially at younger age levels) don't offer many afterschool programs (for the answer as to why that is read Chapter 1), which means families go outside the school system and pay for their kids to have these opportunities. That is where the inequality comes in.

Family sports Mary Ann Chastain for AP

The second, related point to clarify is that what is really being talked about here are competitive afterschool activities. Kids can gain many valuable lessons/skills from recreational participation (like teamwork, the importance of practice, etc.), but these are ratcheted up when you have to try out for an activity and then compete on a regular basis. Again, this often means another financial investment, further crowding out many. With a few exceptions in chess, these activities exist completely outside of the school system. This pay-to-play model means that many low income students are simply shut-off from the experience-- which has implications in terms of skill sets in activities later on and in terms of social skills to be applied in various academic and professional settings.  Again, I believe that ALL kids can benefit and should develop these skills. My issue is that right now, the way the system is structured, only more privileged kids get access in many cases.

And why does this matter? In the more proximate long-term this matters for college admissions-- as I write in the most recent issue of Education Next. Many colleges value these activities as proxies for measuring ambition in youth. More importantly these activities develop the skills- what I call competitive kid capital- to succeed not only in college, but beyond. A conversation with a high school friend who works at a Charter School about this piece captures this perfectly: "Even when our kids perform well by our standards, they still aren't prepared to participate and thrive in society at large because they don't have these intangible skills. Sometimes I feel like education reform is focused on creating a legion of call center employees and security guards instead of actually improving the long term outcomes of students in underserved communities." I responded: "Yes, the college *completion* rates for underprivileged kids who get into great colleges are pretty abysmal. It's more than test scores and classes-- it's giving kids these intangible social skills that come with a certain type of upbringing. Programs like chess can be so helpful, and low cost, and impart many of these lessons. I hope the powers that be listen!"

A final point about this that has come up in a few conversations with reporters and commenters is that it is actually useful in many cases to think about kids' participation in organized, out-of-school activities as a form of children's work. I published a paper on this topic a few years ago in which I argue that in our type of economy the afterschool hours (space between school and family) are even more important for future training and the advantage here clearly goes to the well-off kids. Check out that paper from Childhood here.

Now, back to my first "meh" review on Amazon. The reader was disappointed I didn't offer more practical advice. It's so funny because based on my academic/peer reviews some wanted me to actually delete all the advice I do offer in the conclusion (many don't know that books published by academic/university presses go through a review process and the University of California's is one of the most stringent)! I fought to keep in what is in there, and I do offer some advice, though not as much as some straight parenting books on the market certainly. Going back to The Brilliant Book Club posts, in a comment to one a reader wrote, "I was really impressed with the way HLF used her material and the way she explained HOW she was using the material, but I have no background in this field in particular. So too I enjoyed the way she put our current state of anxiety in context and how the book was a laying bare of a phenomenon, not a judgment of that phenomenon." To which I replied, "Yay– you totally GOT what I was trying to do. In the end, I do make judgments, but honestly the whole time I was doing the research and analysis, I didn’t (I learned how NOT to do this studying child beauty pageants before… Although some chess parents I met are seriously “crazier” than many pageant moms!). I was *forced* to do it while turning the dissertation into a book and I do think it’s necessary, but it’s also good to have a pure research perspective for a good portion of time too."

Now, the good news is that often these shorter articles related to the book actually give me the opportunity to offer more advice. Like, for example, this recent piece I have in a local magazine (complete with a pic of me and my son). Just like my competitive kids, it's all a balancing act in the end!

As always, would love your thoughts on any articles, or the book, and please feel free to leave any sort of review on Amazon, B&N, or Goodreads-- even if it is a "meh" one...

In closing, check out this fun appearance I did on Connecticut's The Carousel Show talking about Playing to Win, sociology, being a mom, and next book project!