Back to Skills

Does More Time In School Mean More Learning?*

Most of the first 12 states granted waivers from some of the tougher provisions of No Child Left Behind have provided few details on how they plan to satisfy a key obligation of the deal: extending learning time for students at the lowest-achieving schools.

Back to Skills

In exchange for being released from some of the law’s requirements, the states had to agree to use student testing data as a factor in evaluating teacher job performance, and to focus their efforts on reforming the lowest-performing campuses. Adding more instructional time was also a requirement.

A new report from the Center for American Progress examining the states’ waiver applications found that, in most cases, there were few details about how the extended learning requirement was actually going to be met.

When it came to laying out plans for implementing extended learning time, the applications from Colorado, New Mexico and Tennessee lacked “strategic thinking,” according to the report. Seven other states (Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey and Oklahoma) were deemed “committed but missing details.”

Massachusetts was the lone standout on the list, because of its “plan to provide guidance on how districts and schools can best use additional time to improve instruction, add time for enrichment, and get the most out of teacher-collaboration time,” according to the report.

Earlier this week, eight more states were granted waivers by the Education Department. It will be interesting to see whether their applications also fall short of CAP’s expectations for specificity as to how students will be given more time to learn.

The CAP report noted that it wasn’t too late for the states to come up with more detailed blueprints for extended learning time that take into account the needs of specific student populations, and make the most of the available federal funding to support the effort.

The idea that the waivers might serve as some sort of free pass hasn’t sat well with critics of the Obama administration’s approach to overhauling public schools. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made a point of emphasizing that the states receiving waivers will actually be facing intense scrutiny and even more demanding expectations.

The notion that the U.S. students need more time in the classroom isn’t a new one. The number of instructional hours in each school varies widely from state to state, although most districts follow a 180-day calendar. A frequent complaint of educators is that there simply aren’t enough hours in the academic schedule for students to learn everything that is expected of them.

Finland, which has become a popular comparison against the U.S. public school system, has instructional days that range from 4 to 7 hours, and a school year that runs 190 days . At the same time, Finnish students have more recreational time (an average of 75 minutes per day of recess, compared with the U.S. average of 28 minutes) to break up those instructional periods.

“The children can’t learn if they don’t play,” a Helsinki principal said in the New Republic’s examination of the Finnish educational system.

But attempts to extend American school days have been met with fierce opposition. In Chicago, plans to extend the elementary school day to 7.5 hours angered some parents and teachers. The nation’s third-largest school district, Chicago currently has a school day of about 5 hours and 45 minutes, one of the shortest in the nation. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel gave some ground, and the plan is now for a 7-hour day at the elementary level and 7.5 hours for high school students.

Complicating the attempt to rally public support for the initiative is that many of the schools have yet to submit their proposals for how the extra time will be used, and because budgets have not been finalized, campus administrators don’t know how much money they will have to spend on expanded programs or services, NPR reports.

The Washington Post asked well-known individuals what tradition, idea or institution they would eliminate to improve daily life, and Peter Orszag, who headed the federal Office of Management and Budget from 2009 to 2010, suggested dropping the 3 p.m. school day. Extending the academic day to 5 or even 6 p.m. would result in “better-educated students and less-stressed parents,” wrote Orszag, pointing to several studies that have shown more time spent on learning can result in better student achievement.

Orszag, writing as part of the paper’s annual “Spring Cleaning” feature, noted that it would also mean fewer kids left unattended in the late afternoon hours, when they are most likely to be risk. The cost of extending the school day would add about 6 to 20 percent to schools’ budgets, said Orszag, citing a 2008 CAP study. But “to improve student achievement and worry less about latchkey children, that’s a price worth paying,” Orszag wrote.

But the issue of extended instructional time is more complicated than just tacking minutes onto the end of the school day, said Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at the Education Sector, a Washington, D.C. based think tank. In fact, “we really don’t really have any evidence that more time will improve lower-performing schools or raise student achievement by itself,” Silva said. “What we know is that a lot of the things schools do need — strong leadership, a rigorous and robust curriculum, high expectations for students, time for planning for teachers – can’t happen without more time.”

Silva, who authored a new report looking at the use of extended learning time in the lowest-achieving campuses that received extra funding through the federal School Improvement Grant program, said there are “real cautions” to be taken into consideration. (For more on the latest research on these challenges, visit the Center on Time and Learning’s Web site.)

“The problem is when schools see extending time as an easy win,” Silva said. “When that happens, they tend to focus on quantity over quality, and to see `time’ as an isolated intervention. What we know is that more time can be very useful for schools and students, but not by itself. Time is not an intervention at all – it’s a tool.”

The strongest evidence about extended learning time suggests that those instructional minutes might be best used on high-quality programs over summer months, rather than extending the day during the regular academic year, Silva said.

When it comes to looking at schools that have had success with extended academic days, there are common factors. They typically have the staff capacity to implement high-quality instructional programs. And there are strong partnerships with community-based organizations and after-school programs, as well as other resources that can “add really enriching challenging time” to the instructional day, Silva said.

“It’s still expensive, it’s still complicated, and it’s still controversial,” Silva said. “But it is possible.”

Extending the school day or school year, particularly if it’s seen as interfering with family vacations or extracurricular activities, could be a tough sell. Educators are already having enough trouble getting students to show up for the days that are already on the calendar. But if the extended schedule translated into a higher quality learning environment — one where teachers were better supported in their work and principals were more effective leaders — wouldn’t that make school a place students were more likely to want to be?

*Portions of this blog were previously published.