The Activity Gap

Kudos and congratulations go to The Atlantic writer Alia Wong. In her article “The Activity Gap,” Wong rightly analyzes many of the issues we find in public schooling today, particularly social inequalities that disrupt students’ equity and access to a quality education. Wong writes: “Income-based differences in extracurricular participation are on the rise, and these differences greatly affect later outcomes. This disparity exacerbates the already-growing income achievement gap that has kept poor children behind in school and later in life. While upper- and middle-class students have become more active in school clubs and sports teams over the past four decades, their working-class peers ‘have become increasingly disengaged and disconnected’…”

While we agree with this author in many ways, may we respectfully suggest that the arts, physical education, etc, should not merely be “extracurricular.” They should be a regular part of daily school life for all children. This was the case until NCLB and Common Core were born and enforced. Because of their narrow concern for testing math and literacy, schools, through misguided polices, have made the arts and other “soft” programs inaccessible for millions of students. And they have led to the termination of hundreds of school music, visual arts, and physical education teachers. Cost-cutting is what these policies are really about, not education.

If we’re supposed to be living in a democracy, which includes equal educational opportunities–through public education–for all children, then the idea of “extracurricular” programs for a limited number of kids is fundamentally undemocratic, no?

It astonishes us that United States policymakers fail to grasp the obvious: ALL students in this democracy deserve and would benefit in many ways from equal access to balanced school curricula for the whole child, which includes equal access to physical education, arts education (etc.) during school hours (not simply after school). And here’s a related issue. Try learning to play or sing music expressively, or learning the techniques and strategies of basketball. We’re not talking about becoming a pro. We’re talking about becoming a competent music maker, etc. If administrators and policymakers actually did these things, they’d quickly realize that learning to make music or play basketball reasonably well requires much more than simple, “soft” skills and understandings. Such pursuits are appropriately challenging, creative, rewarding, and provide significant “life vales.” There’s a growing body of research that supports the conclusion that learning so-called extracurricular subjects is very effective in empowering kids to make a life as well as a living. And now ask yourself this: Does it make sense to assume or assert that education means doing little more in school all day, every day, than study math and reading in preparation for standardized tests? The surprising thing about U.S. schooling today is not that so many kids leave school as soon as possible; the very surprising thing is that more kids don’t leave the highly restricted and humanistically impoverished environments of many schools.