Shortchanging Extracurriculars Might be Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish



June Kronholz,
Janice B. Riddell, (203) 912-8675,, External Relations, Education Next

Shortchanging Extracurriculars Might be Penny-Wise and Pound-Foolish

Student involvement in sports, arts, and civic activities linked to higher academic achievement and persistence

CAMBRIDGE, MA – A growing body of research shows that there is a link between afterschool activities and graduating from high school, going to college, and becoming a responsible citizen.  The National Center for Education Statistics, analyzing the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) data, found that high-school seniors who were involved in school activities were less likely to cut class than kids who weren’t involved.  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 who weren’t involved in school activities.

School districts faced with tight budgets are prone to cutting back extracurriculars, asking parents to pay fees toward their kids’ participation in sports and other activities, or relying on volunteers to fill staffing gaps.  In light of evidence that afterschool activities boost student success, reducing students’ opportunities for powerful extracurricular experiences might be an unwise way to meet budget caps, writes June Kronholz.  Her analysis, “Academic Value of Non-Academics: The case for keeping extracurriculars,” will appear in the Winter, 2012, issue of Education Next, and is available at

Kronholz cites U.S. Department of Education data showing that “kids with the highest test scores are the most active in afterschool activities,” with two-thirds of students in the top quarter of test takers playing sports, for example, compared to less than half in the lowest quarter.

Some researchers insist there is a cause-effect relationship between activities and academic success, not just the other way around.  For example, Margo Gardner, a research scientist at Columbia University’s National Center for Children and Families, used data from the 1988 National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS), controlling for poverty, race, gender, test scores, and parental involvement.  She calculated that the odds of attending college were 97 percent higher for students who took part in school-sponsored activities for two years than for those who didn’t do any school activities.  The chances 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.

Other researchers have examined involvement in activities as a predictor of success.  University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, for example, rated the resumes of recent graduates who were applying for their first teaching jobs, giving high “grit” scores to those who had been in a college activity for several years and attained a level of leadership or achievement.  Those with the strongest records of extracurricular involvement turned out to be the best teachers, based on the academic gains of their students.  She attributes this difference to “perseverance rather than talent,” as she found no significant difference in teacher effectiveness based on the teachers’ SAT scores and college GPAs.

Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg suggests other reasons for the boost to academic success from extracurriculars.  Students who are involved in the school newspaper, clubs, and sports spend extra hours each week with an adult – a role model, such as a drama director or a football coach — and students are motivated to work hard for these mentors.

For many students, involvement in a club that they enjoy is the “hook” that keeps them tied to school.  They also gain skills that can be applied to other areas.  As Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education observes, “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.”

About the Author

June Kronholz is a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent, bureau chief, and education reporter, and currently a contributing editor at Education Next.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform.  Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

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