Closing the Third Gap: Exposure

Guest post by Danielle Kim. This is the third post in a series on our Third Annual Institute for Building Expanded-Learning Systems. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

Since the publication of the seminal 1966 Coleman report, the education field has coalesced around the goal of narrowing the achievement gap. Decades later, powered by research showing connections between out-of-school factors and youth outcomes, we have expanded our efforts to address the second gap: a pervasive disparity in learning time and experiences, also called the opportunity gap.

However, research and practice show that learning experiences are not created equal, and that the rigor and relevance of these opportunities matter.

At the Third Annual System-Building Institute hosted in Chicago last month by Every Hour Counts, 29 communities from across the country gathered together to share ideas for strengthening and scaling our systems-building work. During the first day of Institute, I was struck by an astute comment from one colleague: “exposure is equity.”

Visiting programs managed by local host After School Matters only cemented this observation. I had the opportunity to witness young adults immersing themselves in professional-level artistry through Forward Momentum dance program, hands-on IT training offered by Genesys Works, and self-directed video projects at Innovations High School.


Members of Forward Momentum practice at Block 37, an innovative program space in a downtown Chicago mall. Advanced dancers join Forward Momentum through After School Matters’ advanced apprenticeship program.

In addition to exposing students to new skills and new relationships, these programs are also filling the critical “exposure gap”—which gets at some of the equally important but less frequently discussed factors that influence a young person’s mindsets, values, and identity.

Why does exposure matter? As seen in these site visits, exposure enables young people to make more robust connections between classroom lessons and future job prospects. It connects them to rich cultural and historical institutions across the city that they otherwise might not experience. As one student at the Innovations High School commented, “The downtown area is such a gem. That’s one of the best things about this program: I get to come downtown and explore.” In addition, exposure expands young people’s background knowledge and enables them to take ownership over their learning—factors that researchers like David Conley point to as being necessary for postsecondary success.

Here in Boston, we’re advancing exposure by redefining when, where, how, and with whom young people can learn. From the Harbor Islands to the Blue Hills Reservation, from college, workplaces, and everywhere between, we are proving that novel spaces and places should be a part of every young person’s educational experience. In partnership with 160 after-school and summer program across the city, we’re also tracking data uniformly and making more deliberate connections between program performance and student skills.

If we’re serious about elevating outcomes for all young people, simply increasing access to after-school and summer learning opportunities is not enough. We also need to think critically about the exposure gap and elevate the quality and relevance of these experiences.

Danielle Kim is the Director of Policy and Communications at Boston After School & Beyond.


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