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Ten Questions To Ask On Expanded Learning Time

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Amid the push to improve public education, a frequent complaint by educators is that there isn’t enough time in the school day to adequately cover everything students are supposed to be learning – or to address the myriad challenges they bring with them to class every day.

As a result, school districts nationally are looking for ways to expand learning time for students. In some instances, that effort means adding minutes to the traditional day or providing weekend programs. In others, the focus is on stemming the well-documented and often substantial learning loss that occurs during the long summer break.

Much of the attention is put on minority students and students from low-income families who are already struggling in school. (For more on the educational equity gap in high-poverty schools, and how expanded learning time might be used to address it, consider a recent op-ed by Lucy Friedman, president of ExpandedED Schools by TASC (The After-School Corporation), which provides programs and services to students in Baltimore, New Orleans and New York City.) More recently, there have been efforts to use expanded learning time to ramp up for the new Common Core State Standards, and to expose relatively successful students to a more challenging learning environment.

The research on the effectiveness of extended learning time offers mixed conclusions that depend heavily on how programs are structured: It’s not just about the quantity of the instructional minutes, but the overall quality, as well. (Check out a 2012 report by Child Trends for more on this point.) And ensuring that extra time is well spent typically requires significant resources, both dollars — to pay for programs and services– as well as talented and committed staff members. How can already cash-strapped districts pay for more time for learning? Will teachers and administrators be willing to accept the added workload? What measures will signal if the programs are working?

For education reporters covering this crucial issue, there is no shortage of great issues to explore. To get you started, I pulled together a list of 10 questions, with a few bonus follow-ups.

To come up with my list, I spoke with reporters with experience covering expanded learning time. I also reached out to experts at some of the nonprofit organizations providing extended learning time opportunities to students across the country: Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of the National Center on Time & Learning; Friedman of TASC; Lynsey Wood Jeffries, national chief executive officer of Higher Achievement, which provides programs for middle school students in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C.; Dara Rose, a program officer with The Wallace Foundation; and Chris Smith (executive director) and Louise Harland (deputy director) of Boston After School & Beyond.

Ten Questions

1. How many instructional minutes do students currently receive in your district, and how does that total compare with the national average? (The Education Commission of the States is an excellent resource for making state-to-state comparisons.) Who is in favor of a longer instructional day, and what are their goals? Better test scores? Student enrichment? Staff development?

2. Would students benefit more from extended learning time during the traditional academic day or in the summer months when their time is largely unstructured? Should the focus be on programs for all students, or would targeting students who are behind their peers be a better use of what are likely to be limited resources? A 2012 report by Child Trends examined more than 80 expanded learning programs, and would be a good source to consider in framing the debate. The report, commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, found that programs were slightly more effective when the focus was on younger students with higher levels of academic risk.

3. In schools that already have expanded learning time, what changes are students, teachers and parents noticing? Have test scores risen? And are there measures being considered beyond test scores to determine whether the programs are effective? Are expectations of what expanded learning time will accomplish too stringent or unrealistic? Conversely, is the bar being set too low?

4. How will the expanded learning time be paid for in the local schools? What public-private partnerships are being explored? Will volunteer organizations be tapped, or will the district pay an outside provider?

5. If a school district partners with an outside organization to provide expanded learning time, what benchmarks are being used to evaluate the program’s quality? Does the organization have a track record of success in other communities, or will it start from scratch?

6. Building off question No. 5, how will the success of the partnership be measured, and how will those outcomes be shared with the wider community, particularly parents? Will schools have to report student and/or school outcomes to the partners, and vice versa? How soon should a program be expected to have evidence of a positive impact?

7. When setting a school’s priorities, should more time for student learning always be given top consideration? Would the learning time already on the schedule be more effective if some expanded time were used for professional development and helping classroom teachers improve their instruction?

8. Should expanded learning time focus on giving teachers an opportunity to delve more deeply into the content they are already covering during the regular day, or should it be spent on student enrichment activities? For more on this angle, take a look at a 2012 research brief by the National Center on Time & Learning. A report by TASC on its approach contends that giving schools flexibility to adjust to the needs of individual students is a key component.

9. A policy brief from the Harvard Family Research Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education contends that the responsibility for providing year-round learning should fall to the wider community, and not be shouldered solely by schools. Would students at underperforming schools be better off getting their extra minutes in a different setting rather than just extending the amount of time they spend in the same classroom?

10. survey by the National Center on Time & Learning found that the strongest support for expanding learning time was among parents in the poorest and most affluent income brackets.How do families in your community feel about expanding the school day or year, and what do they want their children to do with the extra time? Is their input being sought?