Groundhog Day? The Common Core Standards & the Role of OST Programs

August 29, 2012

Ten years ago I wrote the following introduction to a policy commentary about out-of-school time (OST) programs:

“Debates continue on the questions of whether afterschool programs should be held accountable for academic outcomes, what the true purpose of afterschool programs should be, and whether accepting responsibility for academic achievement sets programs up for failure by preventing them from focusing on outcomes for which they are better suited.”

That piece posited that this debate was not likely to go away anytime soon and that positions were less polarized than before:  “Consensus is emerging among practice, research and policy circles that after-school programs can play a vital role in bridging the gap between classroom and community.”

I could have saved myself some work and recycled that same introduction weeks ago when working on this new policy commentary on the Common Core and the role of the OST field. While thinking has evolved over the past decade and afterschool systems have matured significantly, the specifics of that “vital role” remain the subject of debate.

OST providers are among those speculating about the impact of the Common Core on everyday practice. Growing momentum around the idea of expanded learning opportunities and the recognition that quality learning experiences can occur anywhere, anytime, has heightened that interest. Many providers, especially those that focus on academics, are trying to figure out what exactly the standards cover, and whether and how they can support schools and districts in implementing the standards. Hopefully our new brief is a useful starting point.

I would like to think that the Common Core represents an opportunity rather than a piling on of unrealistic expectations to an already burdened field. In some states, the new standards do not differ wildly from content standards that have been in place for years Any OST program that has been interested in connecting with classroom curricula or that has academic success as an explicit goal has likely already explored alignment with academic standards. For these programs, the Common Core represents a revision but not an entirely new beast.

The Common Core does, however, bring a new framing – a more intentional, broad and widespread definition of what students need to know and be able to do. And because the Common Core is new and will be the subject of a great deal of discussion and resources in the coming years, it represents an important opportunity for OST programs to become better informed about K-12 education.  

If you follow discussions of the Common Core, you might have heard references to “habits of mind,” described by the Council of Chief State School Officers as “the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that operate in tandem with the academic content in the standards … and offer a portrait of students who, upon graduation, are prepared for college, career, and citizenship.” Habits of mind are reflected in the standards on mathematical practice (a subset of the new math standards) and in the “capacities of a literate individual” described in the introduction to the new English Language Arts standards.

Habits of mind encompass a range of skills that are critical both to academics but also to success in work and life. They include skills that many youth-serving organizations have long focused on. Not surprisingly, we encourage OST programs to think about aligning their activities with habits of mind rather than with individual content standards. The multi-age and multi-subject nature of many OST programs makes alignment with specific standards difficult. Attempts to deliver specific academic content could undermine the ability of programs to attract young people who are most likely to benefit and to complicate program efforts to foster engagement in learning more generally. That said, for programs where academic support is a primary goal, efforts to align with content standards might make good sense, and creating mechanisms for ongoing communication with teachers or other school staff is critical.

During this new chapter in the K-12 reform agenda, the primary risk facing the OST field is the temptation to overpromise. This is a risk that pre-dates the emergence of the Common Core, as the decade-old quote at the beginning of this blog suggests. Although some OST programs have successfully focused on academic achievement, others are trying to reinvent themselves to connect more to schools. 

The Common Core is emerging just as calls for expanded learning opportunities and expanded learning time are growing. The OST field has an opportunity to assert itself as a necessary part of children’s development and education. The goal need not be to replicate the core work of schools, but to complement, support and expand it.


As Director of Special Projects at the Forum for Youth Investment, Nicole Yohalem oversees Forum projects on out-of-school time, postsecondary success and bridging research, policy and practice; speaks on behalf of the Forum at national conferences and events; and serves as an advisor to several foundations, organizations and initiatives connected to the Forum. She has authored numerous reports, articles and commentaries, and oversees several regular Forum publications, such as the Ready by 21, Credentialed by 26 briefs.



Nicole Yohalem