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The Wild, Unregulated Business of After-School Programs

How well do you know that soccer coach or piano teacher?

I met Thomas, the owner of a soccer camp in the northeast,1 at a January expo where he was manning a booth. He had tried several times to push a brochure on me, and finally I told him that I didn't have children and was instead attending the expo to research elementary-school children who participate in competitive afterschool activities. He invited me to one of his weeklong camps, and weeks later, in one of several follow-up conversations, he asked if I would be a coach. Lacking any soccer expertise, I demurred. But when I arrived at the camp, I was surprised to learn that Thomas had put me in charge of coaching a group of about 20 young children and tweens. I protested, and yet Thomas persisted, explaining that the camp was understaffed. After two days, I left. I don't know how Thomas handled my absence, but I'm confident he didn't return the nearly $1,000 that my campers' parents had each paid for first-rate soccer instruction.

Every year, many thousands of American parents sign their children up for sports teams, swimming lessons, and music classes without knowing much about the adults whom they pay to teach their children. Most children’s afterschool activities, a multi-million dollar industry, are run by unregulated entrepreneurs. Kids are routinely taught by those who are not experts in a given area, have no teaching experience or qualifications to work with children, and may not even be CPR-certified. Even worse, not all states require background checks to weed out pedophiles, which is especially shocking in light of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

The vast majority of parents, including the 95 parents I interviewed for Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, trust that if a program like Thomas’s has been around for a few decades then it must be legitimate, or that if a woman advertises herself as a dance teacher then she must be qualified. These parents are willing to invest a lot of money in their children’s extracurricular lives, which are seen as a crucial component in attaining elite educational credentials, but they seem less willing to invest the time to vet the programs they're paying for.

We don’t usually think of parents with children who compete in these activities as vulnerable, especially because most are middle class or affluent. However, with the atmosphere of competition among parents, the desire to give their children the best opportunities they can, and the amount of money spent on these competitive experiences, these parents are indeed susceptible to exploitation. Many of the various entrepreneurs associated with kids’ competitive activities take advantage of families in a stressful moment and charge higher prices because they can, similar to what occurs in the funeral industry. At least the funeral industry, like some industries associated with children (for example, preschool), are regulated to limit such exploitation.

This has created a paradox in today’s intensive parenting culture. Despite spending more time with their children (as time-use studies reveal) and heightened awareness about child safety (during pregnancy, in the backseat of cars, while they sleep) many parents are benignly neglectful when it comes to the qualifications of those who instruct and spend time with children during afterschool hours. Sure, many debate whether kids are overscheduled and whether these activities will actually help with college admissions, but little to no attention is paid to features of these activities that matter more immediately, like safety. Instructors who lack proper training in technique may cause lasting damage to children’s hips, knees, and ankles; additionally they may not know the best surfaces and equipment to use to help prevent wear and tear on young bodies.

Some activities may be even more dangerous. For example, Joan Ryan’s explosive book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes showed how young children, especially girls, are exposed to life-threatening situations in gymnastics and figure skating. She details the death of two 1988 Olympic hopefuls in gymnastics—one who died after a vaulting accident that left her a quadriplegic and another who succumbed to complications from anorexia. Turns out that both young women had the same coach in a sport that, according to Ryan, “never asks a coach, who holds the lives of his young pupils in his hands, to pass a minimum safety and skills test. Coaches in this country need no license to train children, even in a high-injury sport like elite gymnastics.”

That coach, Al Fong, still coaches and had an athlete representing the United States at the most recent Gymnastics World Championships held in October. A 1995 article in Kansas City Business Journal reported: “Fong said that ultimately the negative press didn’t hurt his business, but ‘validated’ him as a world-class coach. ‘People seem to remember only that they saw me on TV,’ Fong said.” Fong learned gymnastics at a YMCA in Seattle and started coaching after competing as a gymnast at Louisiana State University. While he does have expertise in the sport, his knowledge of the changing anatomy of young women and training in adolescent instruction are unclear. (Fong could not be reached for comment.)

How did we get to this point? Competitive activities for young kids (those in elementary and middle school) moved outside of schools during the 1930s, due to the Great Depression, and the 1960s, due to the self-esteem movement in public schools, setting up a system whereby adults not affiliated with any educational programs charged for their services. As college admissions, and sports in general, became more competitive in the 1990s, already established extracurricular programs eagerly accepted parents who asked few questions about the instructors. In this high-demand environment, even more untrained coaches and teachers started their own businesses and programs, thus the crowded and unregulated landscape we have today.

These coaches are not merely babysitters. They're providing a service that is essentially an extension of the school day, and part of a child’s education. As such, they should be given the same scrutiny as teachers, schools, latch-key programs and other child-care businesses. That's why states should pass legislation requiring the certification of youth coaches, in the same way states regulate hair stylists or nail technicians based on the number of hours worked and apprenticeship or classroom instruction. For example, at a minimum, better-business bureaus might consider requiring youth activity coaches to certify every few years that they have not been convicted of any crimes (or, if they have been so convicted, to disclose the nature and date of the conviction); and identify any student injuries incurred under the coaches’ supervision or on the business premises. The availability of such information to the public would help parents understand the risks of working with certain coaches prior to paying them steep sums.

While many coaches and teachers do want to professionalize their fields, others resist, insisting that we should not live in a "nanny state." But the same complaint used to be made by day-care center operators—before evidence of accidental deaths and sexual molestation emerged; as The New Republic's Jon Cohn revealed, day care in America remains frightening even with regulations. Though no one was injured at Thomas's soccer camp while I was there, who knows what might happen next time an untrained adult is hired to work with young kids.

Image via Shutterstock.

  1. I'm using a pseudonym and concealing the identity of the camp because I conducted the research for article under the supervision of the Human Subjects of Research Institutional Review Board at Princeton University and anonymity was offered to research subjects.