The “Participation Gap” You Haven’t Heard About

Harvard professor and researcher Robert Putnam—renown for his ’bowling alone’ thesis of American anomie—has turned his attention in recent years to growing levels of inequality between young people. While his extensive research project on this topic continues, you can get a sense of his preliminary findings from his working paper “Growing Class Gaps in Social Connectedness among American Youth” (2012). This paper focuses on the widening gap between the experiences of middle and upper class youth and their less affluent peers since the 1990s, and how these experiences affect everything from future earnings and levels of educational attainment to social capital, civic engagement, and feelings of self-worth. Spoiler alert: lower class students are not faring so well.

Putnam the political scientist is more focused on the civic engagement component of this growing gap, but I, the learning experience designer, am more drawn to his section outlining student engagement in extracurricular activities. In an era where scores on standardized tests often translates into much-needed financial support for struggling institutions, public school students are often fed a steady diet of content that in reality is little more than test prep. But the intrepid student can always join the concert band, the student council, or the yearbook staff, right? 

Theoretically, yes, if those groups exist. But in theory only. In practice, social class accurately predicts participation in such activities. And over the past fifty years, a sharp divide in participation has emerged between students from more affluent backgrounds and their less affluent classmates.

Involvement in extracurricular activities, Putnam and his team note, “bolsters self-esteem and feelings of self-worth, boosts high school grade point average, shapes educational aspirations, and attainment, as well as wages and occupational choice.” Participation in extracurricular activities is also positively correlated with other goodies, such as future earnings and overall physical health. I would add to that list the opportunity to explore specific interests in more depth; social engagement with like-minded peers; and a chance to explore the ins and outs of collective governance and the rules of collective engagement in a (mostly) non-hierarchical setting only loosely directed by adults. In short, extracurricular activities can be a transformative experience for the typical student, and they help to transcend the limitations of academic offerings.  

But while participation in school-sponsored extracurricular activities for those in the highest income quintile has soared in the past fifty years, the participation for those in the lowest quintile peaked in 1964 and has steadily declined ever since. Putnam notes that while it is true that middle class youth have always had an advantage over their lower SES [socioeconomic status] peers, that advantage has “increased significantly over the past several decades.” The social institutions of working-class neighborhoods that once provided local outlets for student engagement “have essentially collapsed.”

Is there some way to integrate elements of extracurricular activities into required coursework to help level the playing field a bit more? Even as I type this, I wonder if I’ve just identified a new oxymoron along the lines of jumbo shrimp or plastic silverware. Could these types of activities be successfully retrofitted into more formal academic frameworks and should they? 

Perhaps we would do well to revisit what constitutes mainstream classroom instruction while we’re at it. What would a classroom look like if students were able to express themselves through activities typically relegated to the after school hours, such as music, physical movement, computer-based play, or volunteer work? Sure, it would be messy. It would probably be pretty noisy, too. Can the modern classroom accommodate a little chaos? 

We as educators can’t directly address the enormous economic, cultural, and social inequities that separate learners into those whose future outlook is sunny and those whose outlook is decidedly cloudier. But we can figure out ways to provide a more level playing field in the public school classroom, and beyond.

Created by: 
Margaret Weigel