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More Than Minutes: Building a Better School Day

Back to Skills

In a union vote Wednesday, Boston teachers approved the school district’s plan to add 40 minutes to the K-8 instructional day at more than 50 campuses, a move experts say could help improve the quality of classroom instruction, boost student learning, and yield long-term benefits to the wider community.

But the plan, which goes next to the Boston school board for approval, isn’t without controversy. Earlier in the week the Boston Globe published its own review of a district pilot program that expanded learning time at about 40 campuses, finding mixed results. From the Globe’s story:

For many schools, a longer day has failed to dramatically boost academic achievement or did so only temporarily. The uneven results prompted school district officials to scrap the extra minutes at some schools and the state to pull funding or pursue receiverships at others.

But other schools have successfully used an extended day to boost MCAS scores or expand offerings in the arts and other electives.

“I think there are lessons to be learned,” said John McDonough, interim superintendent. “We know time matters, but it only matters if it is used well.”

The idea that the typical American school day is too short is far from a new idea in education circles although it is certainly gaining popularity, backed by recent studies that have found improvements in student learning when there’s more time in school. However, there is ongoing tension over whether American schools need longer days – or to simply be more productive with the time already allocated. As in many education debates, the answer is probably in the grey area between those two extremes.

American students spend an average of about six and a half hours at school each day over a 180-day calendar. In Boston, for example, the typical school day is six hours for elementary students, with middle schoolers getting an extra 10 minutes above that. The city’s high schoolers average a 6.5-hour day.

At schools across the country that have implemented expanded learning time, the typical day is 7.8 hours, and 40 percent of those campuses have students for more than eight hours daily, according to the National Center on Time and Learning, a nonprofit clearinghouse and advocacy organization. What hasn’t increased significantly is the length of the school calendar, which hovers around 180 days. (And that’s why summer learning loss is a whole other problem.)

Lesson from the states

The argument that schools need to focus on the quality, and not just the quantity, of learning time is a logical one. It’s also one of the underlying messages of a new report from the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Researchers interviewed dozens of education officials in Connecticut, Colorado, Oregon, and Virginia, focusing on 17 low-performing schools spread out over 11 districts.

Most of the campuses were receiving extra funding as part of the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program, earmarked for each state’s lowest-achieving campuses. Additionally, the schools were located in states that had received federal waivers from some provisions of No Child Left Behind, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Both the SIG program and the waivers required schools to implement some form of expanded learning time, which varied from adding instructional minutes for students to giving teachers more time for professional development and lesson planning.

CEP researchers found that student test scores had generally improved and graduation rates had gone up at the profiled schools. However, while the educators interviewed praised the value of expanded learning time, they were also careful not to attach too much credit to it for the gains, according to the CEP.

“There wasn’t a single school we went to where this was the only initiative underway,” said CEP’s director of research, Jennifer McMurrer, the report’s lead author.

Here are some of the report’s big takeaways:

  • Campuses faced a number of challenges to successful implementation, ranging from reconfiguring school district bus schedules  to dealing with union contracts that strictly mandated a teacher’s work schedule.
  • Another important factor in a school’s success – how effectively campuses tapped community partnerships to provide supplemental enrichment programs and services the school’s budget couldn’t cover.
  • Education officials also said they needed greater flexibility in how those extra minutes and hours are allocated so that the needs of individual students – and their teachers – could be better met. At the same time, CEP researchers concluded that the states could be doing more to take advantage of already permitted opportunities to redirect existing federal dollars to expanded learning time.

Time for teachers

Another key finding: Teachers who had more opportunities to collaborate with each other tended to be more effective when their attention shifted to their work with students. “An hour of professional development seems to be almost as helpful to teachers, and in some cases more helpful, than an hour in the classroom,” said Matthew Frizzell, a CEP research associate and one of the report’s co-authors.

For schools that implemented a longer day with grant funds – an expense that can be tough for local districts to continue paying for without federal help – professional development can be a smart investment.

“There’s a sustainability piece that goes along with expanding time for teachers,” Frizzell told me. “Even if the extended learning time initiative fades, teachers will still be able to draw on the resources they learned during those professional development hours.”

The report’s findings will likely spark discussion among educators and policymakers, particularly in the many other states where expanded learning time is a federal requirement. The waivers gave educators more leeway in deciding how to use funding for extended learning time, McMurrer said, and effectively pushed the issue of extended learning time to the front burner for states. That “absolutely” made a difference in the outcomes, she added. The new question is whether it will stay there as efforts ramp up in Congress to tackle the reauthorization of ESEA, which is now eight years overdue.

In the meantime, McMurrer hopes lawmakers will consider the report’s findings in crafting the next iteration of federal education policy – and that providing opportunities for flexibility will be a driving factor.

“We found over and over again that context really matters in these schools, and making sure that the programs in place related to expanded learning time reflect the school’s needs,” McMurrer said. “We might have the same goal, but the route to getting there can vary depending on the school, the students, and the state’s resources.”

What reporters need to know

For more on these issues, take a look  at EWA’s Topics Pages on expanded learning time and after-school learning. And if you’re writing about initiatives in your local district, some questions to consider: How is the district paying for the additional time? If a short-term grant is the benefactor, what is the plan for sustaining the program once the one-time funds dry up? If students are getting extra learning time before or after the regular school day, who is teaching them? What accountability measures are in place to track student performance? How much of the extra time will go to direct instruction, compared with other uses like teacher training? Were teachers given a say in how those extra minutes were allocated? If not, why not?