Monday, September 19, 2011

We started as a lemonade stand on the corner, now we're going global (sort of)....

Sam Intrator, Project Coach

As with most out-of-school programs, we began as a lemonade stand. Entrepreneurial in spirit, we launch with an idea, a sense of anticipation, and unspoken belief that our intentions are noble, our idea was distinctive, and that we have the skill and perseverance to run a lemonade stand on the corner. Metaphorically, after a few sales and some encouragement-- we start to dream. How can we expand? What else can we offer? What if we were to move to a busier corner and attract more business? In short, the story of Project Coach and so many of our sibling programs -- we start out in the garage or on the corner with a handmade sign, "Lemonade $1" and end up as a 'real entity' with all the promise and complexity of being big.

As we are getting ready to launch PC 7.0 this fall, one of the exciting additions to the PC Lemonade Stand involves us launching an academic enrichment experience for the elementary-aged players that participate in our sport leagues. The core of the initiative involves providing an hour of academic experience at the schools before the players head over to the athletic facilities for their sport experience.

What do we do with that time? Our plan has two elements: first, we want to provide opportunity for the PC team to provide homework help. When we met with the elementary school principals about how to use the time, they lobbied for us to use the time for homework help. As one principal said, “having extra time to support students with their homework would be a great asset to the children and their families.” We agreed, but we also -- in the spirit of always trying to connect to our touchstone-- “using sports as a vehicle to promote academic, social, and community growth”-- we reached for a more ambitious idea.

We are amidst planning to launch a sport-themed children’s book project that would involve developing a series of lessons that would focus on literacy, book chats, and on themes naturally unfold from the realm of sports: perseverance, what does it mean play fair, playing on a team, the role of practice in getting good at anything, and more.  Our curriculum planning is underway, but Greg Rosnick piloted this venture a few years ago and wrote about for our blog and presented what he learned at a Smith College Collaborations conference.

As I think about how we expanded and developed this initiative, I sense that we relied more on our intuitive sense of how to give ourselves the best shot at success. How can we deploy our resources so that our academic program could be a successful complement to what we already do in the gym? We sat down and planned what the program should look like, but there is a robust literature on the linkage between academic achievement and out-of-school time. We didn’t necessarily consult the literature prior to our initial planning, but since we are still in the planning phase, here is what we would have learned:

In a speech delivered to a assemblage of educational and business leaders in Springfield, MA, Geoffrey Canada shared his metaphor of the train -- which he used to explain what he called the “physics and math of the achievement gap.” He describe two trains leaving Springfield. One train left at 8 a.m. heading south. A second train leaves at 1 p.m. also traveling South. His question, “both trains are traveling at the same rate, when would the second train catch the first train?” His answer was sobering, “the physics and math of this problem are simple-- train B will never catchup.”

His meaning is indelible: poor children can’t catchup to middle class children without speeding up the train or running train B longer. In other words, to hearken back to Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare. Can a tortoise running slow and steady for longer spans of time catch up?

One policy intervention that has been adopted by a number of reform entities involves extended time, which entails adding time to the school year or school day as a way to improve achievement. This logic of this approach hinges on the the axiom, “more time on task.”  This approach is both promising, but like many policy initiatives carries with it some unintended consequences as Patall et al (2010)  point out in there systematic review of research on the effects of extended day.

Potential positive effects for students
  • Increased learning and better academic achievement
  • More time for learning
  • More repetition of material; deeper coverage of curriculum
  • More time on task
  • More opportunities for experiential learning
  • Deepened adult–child relationships
Potential negative effects for students
  • Wasted time (allocated time does not necessarily translate to increased instruction)
  • Increased fatigue and boredom and decreased effort
  • Increased absenteeism and drop-out rates
  • Less time for informal learning, extracurricular activities, student employment, and free time
Our PC Academic Initiative strives to dance a balance. We are increasing time for learning and focusing on academic outcomes but connecting it to our PC Sport curriculum. We will address literacy elements, but do so through processes and content that students would not necessarily experience during the school day.

This begets the question: if merely extending the school day does not uniformly lead to better outcomes, then what features should be in place in an out-of-school program that strives to move the needle on academics?

Lauer (2006)  and her colleagues conducted a meta analysis of studies that examined the impact of out-of-school programs on academics. They only included studies that included a direct assessment of students’ academic achievement in reading, mathematics, or both. Examples included classroom assessments, standardized tests, and grades in subject areas research and evaluation on out-of-school programs that strive to address academics. Several of their conclusions are of import to our efforts:

  •  OST programs can have positive effects on the achievement of at-risk students in reading and mathematics.
  • OST programs need not focus solely on academic activities to have positive effects on student achievement. Study results indicate that OST programs in which activities are both academic and social can have positive influences on student achievement. This finding supports the belief that OST programs should address the developmental needs of the whole child.
  • Duration of academic component does not matter as much as strong implementation. In other words, high quality instruction can be done in small dosages.
  • OST programs that provide one-on-one tutoring for at-risk students have postive effects on student achievement in reading. This was one of the strongest findings from the meta-analysis and is supported by other research on tutoring of at-risk students during the school day
Lauer et al’s findings corroborate many of the other reports and studies that emphasize what programs can do to help students develop academically. The two elementsthat Lauer does not emphasize as much as other researchers do involves the significance of having engaging content that is distinctive from school content and developing alignment and coordination with the school.

So as we ready to launch, I feel we’ve designed a program that entails many of the elements identified by the research as being important to successfully improving academics:

Research-Based Practice & Our Plan in Project Coach
  1. Focus on academics through an engaging and interesting approach that is distinctive from the syntax and flow of school.  Our sport-themed children’s book curriculum will be intriguing both in terms of content, but also because it will be taught by our high school coaches and college students.
  2. Focus on instruction and delivery not just duration of program.    We have been developing a unique curriculum and we will have professional development sessions for coaches each week where we will address delivery of the program.
  3. Adapt instruction to individual and small-group needs. Use one-on-one tutoring if possible; otherwise, break students into small groups. Our ratio will be one PC Staff member for every three students. Each team will have 12 elementary students, 2 teenage coaches, and 1 Smith student. This ratio should provide ample opportunity for
  4. Align the out-of-school time (OST) program academically with the school day and coordinate staff. We have worked with the elementary-school principals to identify teachers to guide our work in the classroom. The close coordination between staff will hopefully yield coordination around academics and other important outcomes.


Lauer, P. A., Akiba, M., Wilkerson, S. B., Apthorp, H. S., Snow, D., & Martin-Glenn, M. (2006). Out-of-school-time programs: A meta-analysis of effects for at-risk students. Review of Educational Research, 76(2), 275-313.

Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Allen, A. B. (2010). Extending the school day or school year: A systematic review of research (1985-2009). Review of Educational Research, 80(3), 401-436.

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