Building a Better School Day

A new report focuses on how schools are using federal incentives to add more learning time.


In a union vote Wednesday, Boston teachers approved the school district’s plan to add 40 minutes to each instructional day for kids in grades kindergarten through eight at more than 50 campuses. It's a move experts say could help improve the quality of classroom teaching, 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 pilot program in the city 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. But it's certainly gaining popularity, backed by recent studies that have found improvements in student performance when kids spend more time in school. However, ongoing tensions remain over whether American schools need longer days—or, rather, strategies for being more productive with the time already allocated. As with many debates about education, the answer probably falls somewhere 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 staying in class an extra 10 minutes. The city’s high schoolers average a six-and-a-half-hour day.

At schools across the country that have extended their classroom time, the typical day is just under eight hours, while 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 for most schools. (And that’s why summer learning loss is a whole other problem.)

Still, 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 contained in 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.

At the time of the study, most of the campuses were receiving extra funding as part of a federal grant program earmarked for each state’s lowest-achieving schools. Additionally, the schools are located in states that have secured exemptions to certain provisions of No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era education-reform program known for its emphasis on testing. Both the grant program and the exemption waivers stipulated that schools implement some form of expanded learning time, whether that meant adding minutes to a student's day or giving teachers more time for professional development and lesson planning, among other options.

Researchers from the education policy center found that student test scores and graduation rates at these schools generally improved. However, while the educators cited in the study touted the value of expanded learning time, they were also careful not to attach too much credit to it for the students' gains, according to the center.

"There wasn’t a single school we went to where this was the only initiative underway," said the center's research director, Jennifer McMurrer, who was also the report’s lead author.

Here are some of the report’s big takeaways:

  • Campuses faced a number of challenges in trying to comply with the expanded-learning mandate, from reconfiguring school bus schedules to dealing with union contracts that strictly defined teachers' work schedules.
  • Another important factor in a school’s success is how effectively it taps into community partnerships to provide extra enrichment programs and services the school’s budget couldn’t cover.
  • Education officials also said they needed greater flexibility in how the extra time is implemented so that the needs of individual students—and their teachers—could be better met. At the same time, the researchers concluded that the states could do more to take advantage of other opportunities to use existing federal dollars to expand learning time.

Another key finding: Teachers who have more opportunities to collaborate with each other tend to be more effective at their jobs, particularly in 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 policy center research associate and one of the report’s co-authors.

For schools that used the grant funds to implement longer days—an expense that can be too costly for local districts without federal help—it might be smart to expand professional development programming.

"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 renewed discussion among educators and policymakers, particularly in the many other states that the federal government is requiring expanded learning time. The No Child Left Behind waivers gave educators more leeway in deciding how exactly to use funding for extended learning time, McMurrer said. That in effect pushed the issue of classroom hours to the front burner for states, "absolutely" influencing the outcomes, she added. The new question is whether the discussion about learning time will remain on people's radar as efforts ramp up in Congress to again amend the legislation that underpins No Child Left Behind, a required process that's now eight years overdue.

In the meantime, McMurrer hopes lawmakers will consider the report’s findings when they craft new education-reform policies—and that ensuring that schools have flexibility when they implement the requirements will be a driving factor.

"We found over and over again that context really matters in these schools, [as does] making sure that the programs in place ... 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."

This post appears courtesy of The Educated Reporter.