Those of us in the education and learning fields are focused on developing ways to reduce the persistent educational inequities that harm low-income students. Unfortunately, meaningful progress towards equity is still a long way away and students from low-income families continue to have fewer opportunities than their more affluent peers.
Part of what makes this problem so intractable for our education system is our overly narrow focus on schools as the primary, and sometimes only, vehicles for closing opportunity gaps. The prevailing logic is that if we improve schools in low-income neighborhoods, so that they are on-par with schools in wealthier areas, the problem of educational inequity will be largely solved.
Of course, schools matter greatly. However, as the persistence of disparities in our schools suggests, the challenge of increasing educational equity will not be overcome if we limit our efforts to strategies bounded by the school day and school building.
For example, a new study on science learning shows that, when it comes to engaging students and building lifelong interest in science, schools are just one part of the equation. The study—conducted by John H. Falk, Scott Pattison and David Meier, of the Institute for Learning Innovation—seeks to understand how different educational resources, including in-school classes and out-of-school “free choice” experiences, can impact science learning. The authors find that out-of-school experiences, particularly visits to science centers, are critical to developing sustained interest in science among young people and adults.
These findings support the broader argument that out of school time learning opportunities are too often neglected—or relegated to the category of “nice to have”—when we think about how to advance equity for low-income students. The fact is: the hours young people spend outside of school are tremendously important to their development. And, young people from low-income families have significantly less access to learning opportunities than their peers from families with more resources. This is true when it comes to structured afterschool and summer learning programs and it is true when it comes to “free choice” learning experiences, like visits to museums or science centers.
As a result, low-income students miss out on the kinds of learning that encourage them to explore their interests, discover new ideas in supportive environments, and build the fundamental personal and social skills that will enable them to thrive in school. As is well-documented by extensive research, out of school learning opportunities not only help to engage young people, they also contribute to improved academic performance.
For our education system to best serve all young people, it is imperative that we look beyond school-based solutions to our ongoing equity challenge. Community organizations like museums, libraries and science centers are, at their core, educational institutions dedicated to providing valuable learning opportunities that inspire curiosity and spark passion for self-directed exploration and discovery.
By making these institutions and, the learning experiences they offer, more available to all students—and especially to students who might not otherwise be able to access them—we can advance equity efforts in meaningful ways that complement school-based efforts. There is little doubt that community organizations and institutions have a vital role to play in ensuring our young people are ready to thrive. It is past time we considered them as vital partners in our overall education system.