Extra boost from extra-curriculars?

Extra-curriculars are valuable, but how valuable? June Kronholz looks at the debate on Education Next.

With school districts struggling to keep their noses above choppy budget waters and voters howling about taxes, should schools really be funding ping-pong and trading-card clubs? Swim teams, swing dancing, moot court, powder-puff football? Latino unions, gay-straight alliances, the Future Business Leaders of America, the French Honors Society, the jazz band, the knitting club?

. . . There’s not a straight line between the crochet club and the Ivy League. But a growing body of research says there is a link between afterschool activities and graduating from high school, going to college, and becoming a responsible citizen.

Most high school students participate in sports, band, theater, clubs or other activities.  Active students do considerably better academically than the disengaged. But is it cause or effect?

Some researchers argue that involvement helps students succeed by increasing their time with adult role models and making school more engaging, Kronholz writes.

When college students look back on high school, they remember extracurriculars and sports, not academics, says Tony Wagner, codirector of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

The takeaway, Wagner said, is that extracurriculars “teach a lot of the skills you need as an adult: time management, leadership, self-discipline, and persistence for doing work that isn’t extrinsically motivated.” That dovetails with Wagner’s academic work, which defines the “skills of the future” as including adaptability, leading by influence, and initiative.

“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,” he told me.

I was as managing editor of the school newspaper, editor of the literary magazine and copy writer for the yearbook. (You may sense a pattern.)

About Joanne


  1. IMHO academic extracurriculars ought to be subsidized but not athletics or social ones. Academic decathlon, debate team, math olympiad, literary magazine, newspaper, drama, orchestra, etc. yes. Knitting club, swing dancing, and gay-straight alliance, no.

  2. I’d also drop drama, orchestra, band etc; I think they belong in the same category as athletics and both can be done through parks and rec, clubs or other local organizations. However, I think that art history and music appreciation should be included as academic classes (either stand-alone or with history), because they are part of cultural literacy. Most of my regular ES teachers and my HS history teachers taught both, as part of history, and there were no art or music teachers. However, that was not part of my kids’ education; art and music were for art and music teachers only and they apparently had no interest in anything other than performance. (two states, three counties). When I asked about those two classes, I was met with blank looks from the art and music teachers.

    It should be noted that almost all sports (football is the major exception, I think) have club structures, unconnected to the schools, reaching all the way to the Olympics.

  3. tim-10-ber says:

    Do you have kids? Do you not realize how many kids these programs help keep in school? Athletics, drama, music and art need to stay…debate, chess, language clubs, school newspapers, keep…the rest can go…

    • I do have children, but I’m also a taxpayer. I’m willing to have my tax dollars subsidize academic-related extracurriculars because those fit into the purpose of the public schools. If a kid wants to play tennis or whatever, join a gym. Don’t expect the taxypayers to pick up the tab for your hobby…

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        At the risk of sounding like Charles Dickens, “high school is very academic; high school is hardly academic.”

        In high school, students have to take academic classes. But, to exaggerate not so wildly, the classes consist of activities (to keep them busy and awake) and memory games. Various academic facts are memorized for a week or three and then forgotten.

        Of course, that’s not what teachers try to do but that’s what happens.

        Since many students get more from non-academic extra-curriculars than they get from the academics, I think we should keep them. In fact, I would give serious thought to decreasing the amount of academics that schools do. Schools legally compel young people to spend seven hours a day 180 days a year in a school. If they aren’t getting much out of the academic part …

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    If you think that the “purpose of the public schools” is solely academic, then you’re unfortunately narrow-minded.

    On what planet can the very existence of public schools be justified in terms of academic preparation? Why the @#(*$ should *I* pay to make your kid better educated or teach him calculus?

    No, the purpose of public schools is — MUST be — to help create better citizens who can lead better lives and thus help forge a better society. Now, we can argue about whether such a program should include tennis, but to dismiss it out of hand because it’s not “academic” is so short-sighted I can hardly believe you’re serious.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      And we come to the juicy part of the problem. What constitutes a “better citizen” and how do we go about “creating” them? While there may be a general consensus concerning what a better citizen actual is, there is profound disagreement about the how part. And thus we have fuzzy, poorly designed schools frequently with contradictory goals. The schools try to meet everyones needs and do it in a shallow and incomplete manner. Miles wide and inches thick.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Michael, I have to ask: do you actually think public schools are successful at creating better citizens? I don’t believe they are. Schools mealy reflect community standards. Period. It would be wonderful it they were capable of ameliorating negative cultural standards, but they’re not – not now anyways. They used to do this, and certainly that was Horace Mann’s goal.

    • The reason I’m willing to have my tax dollars go to fund public education is so that students will receive the academic preparation they will need to become economically productive members of our society. Becoming “better citizens” is a nebulous goal- what does it actually mean?

      I want schools to provide students who attend them with an education that will allow them to be a net benefit to society when they grow up, not a net drain. Calculus has far more economic value than tennis (unless you happen to be a Williams sister).

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        But for most students calculus has no economic value. Nor do most of the other courses they take.

        If you’re talking “net benefit to society,” you are not talking most academic courses.

        • “Net benefit to society” means that you can get a job that will support you and your family so that taxpayers don’t have to. Students who learn calculus are far less likely to wind up needing a handout when they grow up.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Students who learn calculus are far less likely to wind up needing a handout when they grow up.

            You are absolutely correct but, aside from some engineers and other STEM people, I think you are confusing cause and effect. People who take calculus are, in general, harder working, more driven, and smarter. But very few of them actually use calculus to do “a job that will support you and your family so that taxpayers don’t have to.”

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          Calculus has far more economic value than tennis (unless you happen to be a Williams sister).

          While this statement is probably true with respect to what each has done for the human race as a whole, with respect to what it has done in terms of the median contribution of each person to that progress it is almost certainly false.

          I completely agree with Roger: most people who take Calculus (and that’s a small number) get almost no benefit from it. (I’ve actually never taken Calculus — though I learned a bit while I was taking Combinatorics and Linear Algebra and some more when taking college Physics.)

          Athletics — tennis if there’s enough interest at your school to support it, some other sport if there isn’t — is another story entirely. ALmost every kid who participates learns something important to his or her future career: the value of action and accomplishment.

          The fact of the matter is that being responsible for something with real, perceivable results is about 10,000 times more valuable to the average child’s maturation and future success than learning calculus or understanding that the blue curtains signal depression in the novel. As Dewey argued — we learn from experience, and classroom preparation should be about preparation for one’s experiences.

          Life is about doing things, and when you have to win a baseball game, or you have to show up for the Sunday matinee of your play, or you have to sit down and beat some other kid at chess who is trying to beat you, you’re engaging with the world in an obviously real way. Screwing up has real consequences: you lose, or the show doesn’t quite go on, or your team loses.

          As for Stacey’s excellent question, I think it depends on the school. The urge that a lot of people (including me) have to talk about this country’s “education system” is a dangerous one; we have a lot of different school systems, and some of them have problems that others do not. By and large I think our schools are probably failing at making better citizens. But a lot of that is because of a view that cropped up in the late 50’s and spread throughout the next few decades that schools should be value-neutral dispensaries of knowledge. This is exactly the sort of position that Mann disagreed with, and it’s the sort of thinking that leads people like Crimson Wife to think that the only legitimate public interest is in academics.

          I just don’t see it: what’s so special about academics? It’s just one branch of knowledge, one part of the human experience. Calculus doesn’t get people a job; being willing to get up every morning and go out and work gets people a job. Calculus just allows you to get certain types of jobs if you’re so inclined.

          • Roger Sweeny says:


            Thanks for the kind words. I have to disagree with one thing you say, though. I don’t think schools are value-free at all. Most American public schools see part of their mission as creating citizens who are non-racist, non-sexist, non-homophobic. Who are tolerant of people with disabilities. Who solve problems with talking instead of violence.

            For a good while, schools stopped teaching “hard work equals success” but that is returning (Gladwell has an exaggerated account of the research this is based on in Blink).

            Schools also implicitly teach values in their subject matter. For a few decades after World War II, American History was structured as a story of American success and it’s positive impact on the world. Nowadays, it is a story of original sin that nevertheless leads to better and better things as old wrongs are righted and the society becomes more diverse and tolerant.

          • “Life is about doing things.”

            I agree, but don’t expect the overstretched taxpayers to pick up the tab for your desire to learn a hobby. I’m willing to subsidize academic instruction because that provides skills that will allow that child to make enough to be self-supporting as an adult. Ditto for high-quality vocational or technical instruction. There are significant numbers of decent-paying jobs out there for people who know calculus- not so for athletics.

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            CW –

            Ultimately, like Dennis Prager, I’m more interested in clarity than agreement. If we know that you think that the only appropriate purpose of public schools (at least funded by you) is job preparation, I’m happy. Now it’s not a matter of principle that can be argued — it’s just “I don’t want to pay for anything other than better job preparation” on your end, and “I want to pay for life preparation” on mine.

            This has been a fruitful discussion.

  5. Just because something is a good idea doesn’t mean that the schools have to be the one doing it and I speak as the parent of four ful-time athletes. The school facilities can be used, as they already are, by organizations providing programs in the arts and sports, but those activities do not need to be run by the schools.

    Schools SHOULD be far more academic than they currently are; it isn’t as if they are doing so well on academics that they should distract themselves with extracurriculars. Make k-8 real and let kids uninterested in either voc ed (which should be expanded) or college prep drop out at end of 8th grade. Those who complain about kids running loose on the streets are admitting that the purpose of school is daycare.

  6. Cranberry says:

    Extracurriculars are great–if you can afford them. The article mentions it costs as much to put a student on the playing field as it does to put him in a history class. At the most rock-bottom level, no school should support extracurriculars to the extent it must restrict the academic classes offered to all students.

    It may be great for school spirit to have a large football team, but if it means other students must make do with study halls, for me it’s not ethically defensible. More demanding courses of study also correlate with better rates of college attendance and completion.

    One factor in cost is the required payments to faculty advisors. This is required in many districts. That means that students cannot start their own afterschool clubs–or they can, but only after raising the money to pay off the teachers. Parents aren’t allowed to volunteer to help under this system. Thus, the range of activities available to students is restricted, and made artificially expensive.

    I am very troubled by activity fees. I believe it neatly divides schools in haves and have-nots. In a public school, extracurriculars should be available to all interested students, whether or not their parents can pay the fees.

  7. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Just because something is a good idea doesn’t mean that the schools have to be the one doing it and I speak as the parent of four ful-time athletes.

    You understand that this argument applies to academics, too, right?

  8. georgelarson says:

    Michael E. Lopez

    Can an currently existing school district legally shut itself down and force the parents to make other arangements?

    I know of a case where it happened but it was over 40 years ago and it was to prevent school desgregation.

  9. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Depends on the state. Different state Constitutions have different requirements; some of them (most of them, I think) expressly require that there be afforded a “free public education” or something like that. Now, putting aside how stupid it is to call something free, those provisions have been used in lawsuits to mandate funding, so I can easily see that they could be used in lawsuits to mandate operation.

  10. Bill Leonard says:

    The one thing missing in this discussion is any acknowledgement that an extracurricular activity, whether school- or community-related, has anything to offer for the child or student’s growth. In my personal experience, the answer is a resounding yes.

    Both our sons attended a rather large high school by California suburban standards, with a student body of 2,000-plus kids. It quickly became apparent to my wife ands I that a kid who was not involved in some sort of extracurricular activity was pretty much lost in the shuffle. Our sons both were in scouts; in high school one wrestled, the other played football, one also was on the chess team, and both had a spectacularly good time in speech and drama; beyond that, the whole family was involved in the local historical museum association and activities. All these activities provided a lot of growth, experience and achievement for both kids.

    No surprise, I cast my vote with extracurricular activities. It has been our subjective experience that the kids who aren’t involved in anything are far more likely to be the slackers hanging out at the mall looking for something to do — the “something” very often turning out to be trouble of one sort or another.

    • As I said, I grant the inherent value of extracurriculars. I do not see why they should have to be sponsored/run by the schools; it isn’t as if school activities have any specific quality advantage over activities run by other public or private entities. Schools may be used as a convenient venues (as was the case in MoCo with the Hands On Science program, the 10k-strong Montgomery Soccer program and many other public and private organizations).

  11. IMHO athletic extracurriculars ought to be subsidized but not academic ones. The kids get enough academics during the day and with homework at night.

    • Attitudes like this are why India and China are kicking our anti-intellectual behinds in the world economy. I have NEVER heard a South or East Asian individual express this type of belief.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        While I agree with you that we should offer more focused and sometimes intense academic schools, that is not the reason India and China have had tremendous economic growth. Lower wages, lower regulatory requirements, and easy money via their central bank (PBOC) for manufacturing and construction are largely the reasons for their economic expansion. This expansion took place on the back of low wage workers not the highly educated.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    Good question: Cause or effect? Thing is, if a kid is the kind who would go for extracurriculars, he still has things he can learn. So you don’t, which might be implied, drop extracurriculars on the theory that those who can will, without extras, and those who can’t won’t, despite extracurriculars.
    “Better citizen” doesn’t mean solely some kind of subordinate philospher king. Among other things it means being self supporting so the rest of us don’t have to.
    There’s more, of course, but that’s the basis.

  13. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Extra curriculars are not that expensive — and they keep kids busy during the “witching hours” between the last bell and supper time. I sponser a couple of clubs — for no additional pay (only coaches and a few large activities, like Debate, get stipends). It’s no big deal. Generally, around here, football ticket sales end up subsidizing all the other sports. In groups like GSA, International Club, Dance Dance Revolution (oh yes, we have something for any kid), the students themselves generally fund raise if they want money for something. The learning experience for the kids is allowing them to run things. I just supervise at meetings (generally while grading papers) and run any funds through the activities account.

    • Lightly Seasoned, you’re in a different state. I’ve found the stipend levels for activities at a few local high schools online. The stipends run from $880 to nearly $8,000. Some activities require multiple directors/mentors/advisors. When it comes time to balance the budget, extracurriculars are part of the budget process. It’s set by the union contract, so it’s not possible for individual teachers to volunteer to go without compensation.

  14. Roger Sweeny says:

    To pull a quote from Joanne’s October 15 post “Like U.S., Japan faces ‘skills gap’,

    “We are leaving a lot of kids behind,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “High school in America is about preparing for a college degree that most young people will not get, and in the meantime these kids are disconnected from anything that is real in the world of work.”

  15. I would be interested to see comments explaining why school-sponsored activities are better than private ones like Montgomery Soccer, Boy Scouts, Dakota Spirit Cheer Club or Little League or public ones like Rockville Montgomery Swim Club.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      They aren’t intrinsically better. However, laws now require kids to come to a particular place for 7 hours a day, 180 days a year (which costs them more than 7 hours when you count travel time and homework).

      This “crowds out” lots of other potential uses of their time. Locating some of those other activities at that particular place goes a bit toward “leveling the playing field.”

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      The entire edifice of public education is constructed of bricks, each inscribed in capital letters with the slogan “BECAUSE THE PARENTS MIGHT NOT CARE ENOUGH OR BE ABLE TO DO THIS THEMSELVES.”

      Those same bricks can be used to line a dugout in a baseball diamond, to build a high school theatre, or a football stadium.

      • Lightly Seasoned says:

        And cheaper in the long run. No running the kids somewhere else, building is already there and heated/cooled, staff already background screened. Seems kinda wasteful not to use the resources already in place. How many adults are able to host teen activities at 3:00pm?

      • If someone doesn’t learn to read, write, or do math, he/she is probably not going to be able to support himself/herself as an adult. Therefore, it is in society’s interest to fund instruction of those skills. Nobody ever wound up needing a government handout, however, because he/she never learned to play team sports.

        I’d be perfectly willing to contribute to a scholarship fund for talented low-income athletes to participate in a private program, but that’s different than thinking the schools ought to subsidize an athletic program.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Flip the situation. Suppose all people from 5-16 are required to go to soccer camp 7 hours a day, 180 days a year. Soccer camp, say legislators and commissioners of soccer education, teaches teamwork and the value of hard work. Kids learn how to learn, how to take direction from others when it is required, and how to improvise when that is appropriate. It makes kids learn how to work with people from different backgrounds and cultures. It builds healthy habits for life. It combats childhood obesity, diabetes, etc.

      Some kids (perhaps pushed by their parents) also want to learn math and science and history and to read literature. Though some adults think that a math club or science club is a worthy addition to the soccer camp, others say, “There are libraries and museums all over the place–and empty living rooms and back yards. No one’s stopping anyone from organizing academics after camp or on the weekends. Let them do it on their own.”

  16. Soapbox0916 says:

    Idle hands are the devil’s tools. There is a reason why that saying and all its variants has been around for ages.

    Working with some adult clients that are petty criminals (currently in the safe house), the one common theme that I have found among the petty criminals is that they have no life, and that they had no life back when they were in high school.

    Now granted, these petty criminals had plenty of opportunities to join extracurricular activities and they chose to blow them off and blow off school, so absolute force would not work very well. It would be just one more thing for them to skip out on, but a lot of what got them in trouble started out with them being bored. Anything to keep them from being bored that is legal and non-violent is a plus for society.

    At one end of a school’s function, there is the academic challenge that is the number one reason for sending kids to school. But there is the other end, of keeping young people out of trouble by occupying their time, and if extra-curricular activities help keep kids out of trouble and give them a reason to stay in school and stay somewhat academically focused (not a huge distraction to the other kids), then we all benefit.