Time Matters Blog

Moving Beyond Now – Thoughts on the Carnegie Foundation Report

A few weeks ago I watched parts of a six-episode documentary series on PBS entitled “How We Got To Now” in which journalist and author Steven Johnson explores some of the basic features of modern life and how these things that we very much take for granted came to be. He considers questions like why we have standard clock time or a steady supply of clean water to help us understand that these things which seem omnipresent (and even quite natural) are anything but. Each of these things has followed a winding historical path where individual actors and broader social forces combined to turn them from idea into fact, from a process with many possible outcomes into what seems now like a fixed and unquestionable reality.

I thought of this phenomenon of how the status quo actually became the status quo as I was reading a new report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching about the way in which one of the underlying elements of the educational landscape, the Carnegie Unit, developed into an organizing feature of education at the high school and, especially, college level. (For the uninitiated, the Carnegie Unit is essentially the way both high schools and colleges identify the specific educational value of any given course, and this value is determined simply by the quantity of time students are in instruction throughout the course of a year or semester.)

The history of the Carnegie Unit is intriguing. It actually resulted from an effort by the board for Carnegie’s new foundation to develop a retirement system for college professors. The trustees realized they needed a way to designate who would qualify for the pension fund, so they decided that they needed first to determine whether an institution calling itself a college was legitimate. The trustees determined that an institution’s authenticity had to be based on who was studying there and whether they were, in fact, qualified students. And thus Carnegie’s trustees:

… concluded that college entrance requirements should be “designated in terms of units, a unit being a course of five periods weekly throughout an academic year of the preparatory school.” Fourteen such units constituted “the minimum amount of preparation” for students heading for college. And colleges that required fourteen units for admission would, if they met the Foundation’s other requirements, qualify for the pension fund.

As the report authors note, though, this system was not simply a quantitative measure for professors’ pensions. Instead,  

Colleges and universities quickly crafted new admission requirements to conform to the demands of the Carnegie pension program, causing the nation’s rapidly expanding high school system to introduce new diploma requirements to ensure that students amassed the required fourteen course credits on their way to graduation—each credit representing some 120 hours of instruction over a school year. What’s more, many in education, including Carnegie’s leaders, didn’t see the Carnegie Unit merely as a pathway to pensions, but as a broader mechanism to improve the administrative efficiency of schools and colleges in the spirit of the “scientific management” movement of the day.

Since its early days over 100 years ago, the Carnegie Unit thus became accepted as the way to structure higher education and the path to it. And this system has lasted a century.

Yet, in more recent years, this system has faced some criticism for two significant reasons. First, the Carnegie Unit is, by definition, about inputs (i.e., instructional time) and says nothing about instructional effectiveness (i.e., what students actually learn or outcomes). Quality is presumed to exist in quantity, but such a presumption is a stretch, at best. Second—and this relates directly to our work at NCTL—the Carnegie Unit is based on standard, unchanging units of time for all students, without regard to different learning rates of individuals. The system, in other words, runs directly counter to the directive of the National Commission on Time and Learning, which argued that learning should be the constant and time should vary. The current system of having a standard school day and year—and the Carnegie Unit in high schools is built on the same principle—virtually assures that learning will vary, and that many, many students will fail to achieve in the standard time allotted.

And, yet, as the authors of this report make clear, developing an alternative to the Carnegie Unit is not so easy. Former Carnegie Foundation president, Lee Shulman, is explicit: “There is nothing simple about measuring the quality of learning. The reason for the robustness of the Carnegie Unit is not that it’s the best measure, just that it’s much more difficult than folks think to replace it.”  How true.

So where does that leave us? To my mind, a solution to this conundrum occurs every day in the many high-performing, expanded-time schools, the bulk of which serve predominantly high-poverty students, across the country. In these places, there is, of course, an emphasis on the quantity of instructional time and, in turn, on finding ways to optimize that time spent learning. Yet, the focus on the amount of time learning is not to fulfill some standardized requirements, but because the educators know that if they are to ensure that all students learn to high expectations, then time cannot be a barrier. So, the more time educators have to work with students, the more they can shift their attention to having all students meet learning targets, doing whatever it takes to enable all to become proficient, without regard to time inputs. Quality then naturally trumps quantity, while each student gets the time he or she needs.

In small pockets across the country, then, the status quo of the Carnegie Unit is slowly being made less relevant not by an aggressive push against it, but by proving that there may, in fact, be better, more workable alternatives. All of which brings us back to Steven Johnson’s documentary in which he explains (and I’m paraphrasing):

We tend to think of great ideas as ‘light bulb moments,’ when inspiration is sudden. But that’s not the way it really works. Instead, our best ideas start as a vague sense of possibility, the hint of something better. Again and again, we see that it can take many years for these ideas to come to fruition. And so as organizations and as a society, we have to find ways to keep these ideas alive because it is from them that society, as a whole, is improved. We should be inspired by the ways in which individuals solved problems of the past to solve the problems of today.

I happen to believe that expanding learning time in schools is one of those ideas.

The Most Exciting and Scariest Part of Blended Learning Isn’t Technology; It’s Change

Today We Release a Step-by-Step Blended Learning Expanded-Time Implementation Guide
 

This blog is written by Roy Chan, Director, Effective Practices, and author of our new blended learning report released today: Supporting Student Success through Time and Technology: A Step by Step Guide to Successfully Implement Blended Learning and Expanded Learning Time at Your School. 

While many know us for our work with more time, we know that good schools don’t just have more time for their students, they also use time well. Using time well means that the days, hours, and minutes spent in a school are personalized to set up every student and teacher for success—now and in the future. In working with and learning from schools across the country, we’re finding that educators are increasingly looking towards blended learning in our shared efforts to truly personalize learning and maximize time.

Like expanded learning time, blended learning looks different at different schools, but can be defined as the combination of teacher-led instruction with online digital content to personalize student learning.  In a blended learning classroom, all of the following may take place simultaneously: One group of students may be collaborating on a project; another group of students may be receiving small-group tutoring; and another group of students may be working independently on digital programs that adjust content based on each student’s skill levels. It is in these dynamic environments that student time is more likely to be maximized than say, in a traditional whole-class lecture. To move away from the latter and in to the former approach, or ‘to go blended’, requires a dramatic rethinking and redesign of space, time, and practice. It requires change. And change can be difficult, and almost certainly unpredictable; blended learning can be (and has been) done well or poorly.

Our latest publication, Supporting Student Success through Time and Technology, details the current blended learning approaches at six expanded learning time schools across the country, and highlights their lessons learned. From these schools, we learned about the successes and unforeseen challenges in moving from traditional learning environments to blended learning environments. We learned that the shift to blended learning mirrors the shift to expanded learning time in a number of ways, in particular the need to: Align the resource (e.g. time or technology) to existing instructional priorities, adopt new practices, support staff, and communicate often with stakeholders. We also learned that blended learning and expanded learning time are distinct but mutually supportive strategies. Blended learning, done well, maximizes learning time. Meanwhile, more time, done well, allows for the meaningful collaboration and development opportunities that teachers need to go blended. Above all, we learned that the success of blended learning and expanded learning time are ultimately dependent on practitioners, from school leaders to teachers.   

The aim of Time and Technology was to share practices and lessons in the hopes of helping more schools implement blended learning successfully in the future. In our early research and writing, we realized that profiles of existing school practices, by themselves, would be insufficient to meet that goal. More specifically, we realized that schools need clearer guidance down the path to blended learning, so we’ve included a second part to the publication:  A design and implementation roadmap, laid out in seven steps, each including resources aimed to shine some light on the unexpected, avoid mistakes of other schools, and ultimately navigate change a bit more smoothly. We hope that the combination of the six school profiles and the seven implementation steps will help to maximize the time schools spend in the design and implementation of blended learning, just as educators hope that the combination of teacher-led instruction and online digital content personalizes each child’s learning time. 

It’s About Time: Lessons from Meriden, CT

Today's blog is written by Robert Travaglini, senior director of school and district support in Connecticut.

In Meriden, Connecticut, district leaders and teachers were in a quandary. Their neighborhood schools did not provide students and teachers with the necessary resources to help close the achievement gap. So, the community came up with a plan to redesign the entire school day to benefit students, staff, and families through expanded learning time. The recent AFT handbook, It’s About Time: Lessons from Expanded Learning Time in Meriden, Conn, highlights the work done in Meriden addressing union-district partnerships, school level planning, effective scheduling, teacher collaboration, instructional support, and expanding student opportunities through enrichment programming.

The AFT Innovation Fund - founded in 2009 by the president of the American Federation of Teachers to provide resources for unions to lead educational change – was an important part of the district’s success stressing the importance of teachers playing a leading role in planning for the longer school day. The AFT helped create these union-district partnerships in 2011, inviting a team of district and union leaders from Meriden to attend a meeting with NCTL in Boston to learn more about the benefits of expanded learning time. This meeting led the Meriden Federation of Teachers to apply for and receive an AFT Innovation Fund grant to implement expanded time in Meriden schools.

"The Meriden experience shows that innovation and flexibility stem from true labor-management-community collaboration. It takes support, resources, respect and time.” – AFT President Randi Weingarten
 

Dr. Mark Benigni, Meriden’s Superintendent, and Meriden Federation of Teachers President, Erin Benham, are to be commended for their courage and collaboration in putting students and families first through innovative planning and creative thinking in realizing the traditional schedule of public education was not working for their students. It’s About Time is an important resource for unions and districts that are considering expanding learning time. "It's really a soup-to-nuts account of how we did what we did," said Erin Benham. "Meriden teachers wanted more time to collaborate to help their students. By re-engineering the school day at three schools, they have created a strong sense of collaboration and community.”

We recommend you read the handbook to find best practices for implementing expanded learning time

Blended Learning and Expanded Learning Time: What We Believe, What We Know, and What We Hope

This blog is written by Roy Chan, Director, Effective Practices, and author of our new blended learning report, Supporting Student Success through Time and Technology: A Step-by-Step Guide to Successfully Implement Blended Learning and Expanded Learning Time at Your School, to be released Friday, January 23, 2015.

We believe change is needed in our schools. Not just for the sake of change, but to prepare students for a world that is increasingly competitive: in colleges, in the 21st century workplace, and in the global economy. We believe expanded learning time is the vehicle for that change.

We know that additional time alone does not guarantee success. We know that our students need more time, but we also know that the impact of time on learning is ultimately shaped by educators—and to a smaller extent the various tools and structures at their disposal. We know that this is no simple task.

We know that educators are increasingly interested in technology, and more specifically blended learning, to support—not replace—them in their increasingly challenging responsibilities. We know that blended learning offers students an opportunity to own and personalize their education through a combination of teacher-led instruction and online digital content. In regards to the latter, we know that online digital content is a tool. We know that the ed tech market has grown greatly and its products have improved immensely, but no product exists which perfectly meets the unique needs of every school and student. Just like expanded time, the people choosing and using digital content matter more than the content itself. Just like expanded time, informed design and implementation around digital content is critical but often overlooked. Just like expanded time, blended learning represents a reimagining of the ways that students learn in school.

Although they are two distinct strategies, we know that expanded learning time and blended learning can be mutually beneficial. We know that more time, particularly for teacher collaboration and development, allows blended learning to be implemented with greater fidelity. More time also allows students to engage more deeply in the self-paced and personalized activities that blended learning affords. Conversely, we know that blended learning helps teachers maximize time with their students and their peers. Furthermore, blended learning can create opportunities for teachers to deliver more individual and small group supports, while also supplying teachers with data to enrich discussions with colleagues. Of course, we know that not every school capitalizes on the promise of expanded learning time or blended learning.

We hope that our newest publication, Supporting Student Success through Time and Technology, helps schools better design for and implement blended learning, just as we have done for expanded learning time. Time and Technology highlights the intersections between expanded learning time and blended learning, profiles promising practices at six blended learning schools with expanded learning time, and outlines seven design and implementation steps for practitioners interested in adopting blended learning. We hope that this publication delivers to practitioners the type of unbiased, product-agnostic, school-level guidance that is currently lacking in the blended learning field. Most importantly, we hope that our contributions add to those of numerous other organizations and educators committed to changing our schools—through blended learning, expanded learning, personalized learning, etc.—to improve student learning. We hope you’ll take a look at our work and find some ways it can benefit a school you know.  

Stay tuned for the report release next Friday, January 23.

Boston: Poised and Ready for Change

Over our ten year history working in supporting schools to close achievement and opportunity gaps for students through expanded learning time, we have worked with the Boston Public Schools and the Boston Teachers Union as they have moved to increase learning time in district schools. It’s clear that district initiatives have moved in fits and starts, with - and sometimes offset - by schools that have seen more limited improvement.

Nationally, we have worked directly with hundreds of schools, coaching each one on how to plan for and implement a redesigned school day. Since 2005, we have learned a lot about what it takes for a school to plan for and implement a redesigned schedule successfully.

A few of our core principles for this work include:

1) Redesigning the school schedule. While we recommend that schools add at least 300 hours across the year above the standard school schedule of 180 6.5 days to ensure a more comprehensive whole-school redesign, even small amounts of time can catalyze a restructuring and strengthening of the educational program. We do not believe, for example, it is effective to simply “tack on” five or ten minutes to every block; rather educators should think about how their school can better serve the learning needs for students and teachers in deep ways. The schedule redesign should then match those identified needs.

In fact, on the MassTELLS survey in 2014, 80% of teachers in expanded-time schools report that they have enough time for collaboration versus 60% of teachers in traditional schedule schools. Additionally, 79% of teachers at expanded-time schools report having sufficient instructional time to meet the needs of all their students versus 58% of teachers in traditional schedule schools.

2) The importance of a planning process. A strategic, thoughtful redesign and community buy-in are both critical to ensuring high-quality expanded learning time. We recommend a planning process of at least six months that involves a school-level team that includes the principal, teacher leaders, support staff, parent representatives, and community organizations. This planning team should be responsible both for thinking about how a redesigned school schedule will lead to school improvement and for getting input from the broader school community.

3) Focus on the essential elements for high-quality expanded learning time. As our work has developed over the past ten years, we have developed “Seven Essential Elements for High-Quality Expanded Learning Time”. Those elements drive our work with schools as they plan for a redesigned schedule.

For example, we help school teams think through how to:

a)      Develop focused school-wide priorities to drive all teaching and learning (element 1);

b)      Use data to individualize academic supports for students and organize small group instruction, assigning  students to teachers who might best address their specific learning needs (elements 3&4);

c)       Provide teachers more time for targeted professional development and collaboration (element 5); and

d)      Engage students in robust enrichment classes, such as robotics, karate, drama, visual and performing arts, physical education/athletics, technology, each of which is aligned to the instructional priorities of the building (element 6).

Individually and collectively, these elements are core to high-quality learning time generally. With more time, their value is even greater.

4) Leadership is critical.  Change in any context is hard and complex. Our current standard school schedule has been in place for over 100 years, and often teachers and parents school time to be the same every year. To bring about change to the schedule—and to the whole educational program of the school—will take consistent and dynamic leadership from principals and teachers, as well as the commitment of the district to support practitioners in their work.

We believe that Boston is ripe for the expansion of the school schedule announced by Mayor Martin Walsh, Superintendent John McDonough, and BTU President Richard Stutman last month. This call for more learning time has captured national attention and, once again, Boston is poised at the vanguard of educational reform. Of course, Boston already boasts some of the leading schools in the expanded-time movement – both district and charter schools—which have demonstrated the challenge and triumph of implementing high-quality expanded learning time. Today, we are optimistic that this new initiative will create many more examples of the power of more time to improve schools.

Syracuse Leading the Way on Reform in New York

In a few weeks, we will be releasing an update of our policy trends report called Learning Time in America. As a preview, I can tell you that we have, once again, found momentum continuing to build with more and more schools and districts redesigning and increasing school time to support student achievement and teacher development.  Effective use of more time in school has become an essential strategy for education leaders who oversee districts focused on creating excellent schools for all their students, regardless of the challenges of poverty, race, and disability.  Without adequate time for teaching and learning—and for countless at-risk students the standard 180 6.5-hour days is not adequate—educators understand that it is unlikely any school can meaningfully boost student performance.

While the large urban districts get most of the attention, often it is the small urban districts where improvement is really gaining traction.  I have written recently about the successes in Lawrence, MA and featured schools from Fall River, MA.  Now there are standouts in other states.  What is happening in Syracuse, New York, for example, is one of the more exciting ones. Superintendent Sharon Contreras is turning around a district that has for many years struggled to raise student achievement.  By leveraging significant state and federal funding, she has created two cohorts of expanded-time schools, enabling more opportunity for teachers to collaborate to improve instruction and for students to receive the personalized support in smaller learning groups.  She has created a district-within-a-district, called the iZone, a group of seven schools that are each aggressively implementing transformational practices to bring about school improvement. In addition, the district has designated another five schools to engage in a whole-school redesign through the state’s Expanded Learning Time (ELT) Initiative.

To broaden the educational experiences of children, the superintendent has fashioned a network of effective partners, including community organizations, Syracuse University, the Museum of Science and Technology, Redhouse/Arts Collaborative, SUNY ESF, Baltimore Woods Nature Center, Syracuse Stage, Peaceful Schools, Catholic Charities and Contact Community Services that each work deeply with schools to provide enrichment and a robust system of school support. Contreras continues to align the efforts of these partners with the core instruction and educational priorities within schools as well to leverage these enrichment opportunities to create more time for teachers to collaborate and to analyze data.   

This re-organization and expansion of the day in iZone and ELT schools and the near seamless alignment of the constellation of reforms and partners constitutes an important reason Syracuse bears watching. In short, the full day is now designed to make all the various facets of a high-quality, well-rounded education fit together. The district is using interim assessments combined with other student measures to personalize education for each child and a way to monitor each student’s performance.  Ultimately, Dr. Contreras aspires to create a systemic approach to link data to instruction. The superintendent and school leaders and teachers in Syracuse understand that it is not possible to help students improve without gaining a full understanding of what they know and where they still need to grow.

At the same time, simply having ready access to data does not necessarily translate to change in the classroom. Teachers must also have the opportunity to strategize on how to target and differentiate instruction to meet individual student needs. To realize this objective, district leadership has insisted that teachers are provided adequate time to understand and apply the data. Consistent, dedicated collaboration sessions (about 30 minutes per day) are built into every teacher’s schedule so they can jointly figure out how best to address students’ learning strengths and deficits. Further, during regular collaboration, teachers work together to strengthen core content, including the district priority of improving comprehension and discourse around complex text.

But the educational design does not stop there, as more time for teacher learning should not mean less learning time for students. So, during the periods when teachers meet, students engage in productive learning, courtesy of the network of partnerships that Superintendent Contreras put in place. Under the guidance of these partners, students have the chance to engage in the arts, robotics, creative writing or a host of other fun things that are also carefully aligned to support core content skill development. Moreover, the partners become yet another source through which to assess student growth and development. (Incidentally, in some cases, the district has leveraged 21st Century Community Learning Center funds to install and strengthen these partnerships.) The well-rounded education that we imagine should be part and parcel of each child’s experience in school is taking shape in Syracuse.

In districts that serve large numbers of children in poverty, the path to meaningful and lasting school improvement is often long and winding. But the recent activity in Syracuse makes this district, in my view, more the exception, than rule. Why? We get an important clue by looking at how Superintendent Contreras has capitalized on the two major sources of funding—the federal School Improvement Fund in the case of iZone and the state ELT grant—and how this experience differs from other places. For one, we’ve found in our research that most of the thousands of recipients of a School Improvement Fund grant have not actually put in place a longer school day for all students. Instead, most provide more learning time only to a subgroup within a school. This approach then limits the impact that more time can have upon whole-school improvement. Syracuse was also one of only twelve districts in the country to be awarded a special federal grant aimed at developing leaders in turnaround schools. As for the ELT monies, Syracuse was actually the only district in the state to be able to implement this year. Their readiness has thus earned them an extra year of implementation.

From our vantage point, it is clear that Superintendent Contreras and her team have not only developed a strong vision for progress, but, more importantly, that they are constantly learning, reflecting and modifying their approach to best meet the needs of the students. We know from experience working with districts all across the U.S. that the road to preparing all students for success in higher education, careers and life is a challenging one, often with bumps along the way.  But with a clear plan and leadership like that of Superintendent Contreras, we are confident we will see substantial gains and we are eager to watch the progress as they reimagine how to develop their human capital, create sustainability strategies, strengthen core instruction, align instructional priorities and serve the children of Syracuse. 

Expanded Learning Time Segment on the NBC Nightly News

Did you watch NBC Nightly News last night? In case you missed it, they highlighted how Boston Public Schools are planning to add an additional forty minutes to their school day next year. Watch here.

The segment highlighted the great work that is happening within the Eliot School, a Boston K-8 school which has already expanded their schedule. The piece showed dynamic lessons and engaged students and the school’s  implementation of fun and educational hands-on enrichment such as dance and robotics. Eliot School principal Traci Walker Griffith said, “It’s all about how you manage the minutes…by providing extra time, teachers have time to collaborate, students have enriching opportunities that they might not otherwise get.”

While there is some anxiety about the proposed new school day, the community seems optimistic that ELT will be implemented at the first cohort of 20 schools next year. Teachers will vote on the measure this week.  “As long as it benefits my son, I’m all for it,” said a Boston Public School parent in the segment.

23,000 Boston Students to Benefit from More Learning Time

We are excited to hear over our holiday break that leaders in Boston announced a tentative agreement with the Boston Teachers Union to lengthen the school day at 60 Boston Public Schools.  Mayor Martin Walsh, Superintendent John McDonough and Boston Teachers Union President Richard Stutman announced the plan to add forty minutes onto the school day beginning in 2015-2016. Elementary students currently have six hours of class time in Boston public schools, while middle school students have six hours and ten minutes of class time. As Scot Lehigh pointed out in his Boston Globe opinion piece, forty minutes may not seem like a lot, but we are hopeful, that this time is used well to rethink how time is used overall in each school. 

Our Co-Founder and President, Jennifer Davis, released a statement:

“I applaud Mayor Walsh, Superintendent McDonough, and BTU President Stutman for their leadership in acknowledging that we have to provide our teachers more time to work and learn together as peers and also more time to work with their students. Boston's diverse students will also benefit from the broader academic and enrichment opportunities that a redesigned and expanded school day enables.”

This new plan will be implemented in 60 select elementary and middle schools around the city, allowing nearly 23,000 students to have a longer school day. The new plan will be rolled out in 3 waves, starting with 20 schools next fall.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh described his view on lengthening the school day, saying, “We know that when our students have more time to learn, they have a better chance of succeeding.”

The new proposal still needs to be approved by the union’s full membership and the Boston School Committee but School Committee President Michael O’Neill sounded optimistic about its passage and said the proposal would benefit art, music, drama, foreign language and other underserved subject areas. Each school community will also now come together to develop plans for their new redesigned and expanded school day.

In a Boston Globe opinion piece posted on Monday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also applauded Massachusetts for the Commonwealth’s innovative achievements in education achievements, writing:

“In many ways, Massachusetts is now helping to lead the country where it needs to go in education… progress is being made on closing the critically important achievement gaps that exist for economically disadvantaged students and students of color: the state has seen impressive achievement gains among African American and Hispanic students over the last eight years…[The Lawrence School District] progress exemplifies that collaborative, courageous leadership can work to transform an entire school district from chronic poor performance to high performance. And it has been done not through a top-down, one size fits all approach, but though empowering schools to innovate, expanding learning time, constructive partnership with the union and strong teacher leadership.”

There is a bit of hometown pride that comes when your home district announces an agreement to expand learning time. We know that this agreement was not reached without compromise or difficult decisions, but we are excited to see the opportunities it presents for students and teachers. The Commonwealth has long been a leader in putting forth strong models of expanded learning time schools, and we are hopeful that the schools in Boston will join them.

The Extra Time Payoff

Today's blog is published on the AASA, the School Superintendents Association's School Administrator Magazine.

How schools using a longer day are raising instructional efficiency through a faculty’s joint planning and sharing of student data

Greg Fox could not contain his enthusiasm. As principal of Dr. Thomas S. O’Connell Elementary School West in East Hartford, Conn., for the last three years, Fox led a school redesign that, beginning in September 2013, added 300 more scheduled hours to the school year for his 315 students.

“There’s no question, teaching and learning are different now,” says Fox, an educator for 19 years. “For the first time, we feel like we can meet the needs of every student. For the first time, we’re able to really integrate inquiry-based learning. Having not only more class time, but three hours of common planning time each week, makes what we do possible.”

O’Connell Elementary is just one of a rapidly growing group of schools that have added substantial time to their school schedule with the underlying goal of bolstering student learning. From Chicago to New Orleans to Elizabeth, N.J., educators in school districts across the country have come to understand that more time in school can make an enormous difference in students’ education, not simply by increasing the quantity of time on task — a proven strategy to boost proficiency — but by substantially enhancing its quality. Put simply, adding school time, alongside effective planning, can make all the moments spent in school better.

And the pivot point upon which this rising quality turns is how the expanded schedule opens up more opportunities for teachers to collaborate. Meeting for extended periods at least twice a week, teachers are together to reflect upon their instruction, continuously viewing each lesson through the focal prism of what students have learned. From these honest discussions, teachers then seek to make smart adjustments to their instruction with two aims — deepening the learning of all students and, simultaneously, addressing individual student needs.

Raising Rigor

The teachers at Frank M. Silvia Elementary School in Fall River, Mass., know this dynamic well. Eight years ago, the school serving 600 students, more than two-thirds of whom qualified as low-income, had a day that ran from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. They struggled to get much more than a third of students to be proficient. In more recent years, however, with 800 students and an eight-hour day, the school has seen its proficiency rate double, and the school is one of only a handful in Massachusetts with growth rates in both math and English language arts within the top 15 percent of all schools statewide each year for the past five years.

The secret to Silvia’s success is actually no secret. The administrators and faculty have leveraged their longer day to spend countless hours talking about and then acting upon ways to raise expectations for what should constitute high-quality work.

FarbmanFeature
 Teachers at Silvia Elementary School in Fall River, Mass., redesigned the school week schedule to allow uninterrupted, 45-minute common planning periods twice a week.

 

Teachers at Silvia meet in uninterrupted common planning time twice each week, 45 minutes each for math and literacy. (During this period, students are in specials — music, art or physical education.) There, they focus intensively on boosting instructional quality. The dean of teaching and learning, Sherri Carvalho, describes how the teachers have collaborated to set a norm for expectations using an example from 4th-grade literacy.

“In the past, teachers would just come up with their own open-response questions. Students would answer them, but when they’d come back to common planning there was no coherence on the team level,” says Carvalho, who reports to the school principal. “But now that they’re creating those questions together, teachers share similar student work that they can have conversations about and, most importantly, they’re coming up with good questions for their students to answer that will really make them think.”

Essentially, teachers at Silvia prod each other, holding each other accountable to make their instruction more challenging. Meg Mayo-Brown, superintendent of the 10,500-student Fall River district, explains the progression as generating a “common understanding of what a rigorous task looks like and sounds like. Working together has this tremendous effect of raising the bar.”

The advent of Common Core State Standards has driven the movement even further toward greater rigor, but Silvia teachers have been ready for the transition because they already had a lot of experience figuring out new ways to push their students. Now they are engaged in aligning all classroom work across the school to the Common Core, a process Principal Jean Facchiano describes as complex but achievable specifically because each teacher team has committed considerable time to content selection and the subsequent mapping of lessons to the standards during common planning meetings.

Teachers at O’Connell Elementary face the additional challenge of reshaping their classrooms to meet the robust requirements of the International Baccalaureate curricula, with a deliberate focus on inquiry-based and cooperative learning. The school made the transition to an IB school the same year it expanded its schedule, so teachers spend much of their two 90-minute common planning sessions each week examining how they might incorporate many more hands-on and group projects in classrooms, all of which are based on the IB units of study.

The change in educational approach is obvious. Where the 4th-grade math class used to tilt heavily toward the training and practice of arithmetic operations, students now regularly partake in lessons that revolve around the application of math skills and creativity toward solving real-world problems, like organizing a grocery store and determining product prices.

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The teachers readily acknowledge that the transformation of their individual classrooms — a transformation that aspires to build in coherence and a standard level of excellence across the school — began in the conference room, where the whole faculty advanced together toward a new way of engaging students in learning. East Hartford Superintendent Nathan Quesnel observes, “When the teachers start sharing results and what works in their classrooms, the whole faculty starts to gravitate towards best practice. And this school has become a model for where we want others to go.”

Personal Needs

It is one thing to craft high expectations. It is another to get all students to reach them. Collaboration and review of student data also play a pivotal role in this objective.

Aura Ryder, a 1st-grade teacher at Silvia, says she and her colleagues are “talking deeply about data every week” to determine which centers, such as small-group reading or fluency drills using computers, are “relevant and necessary and which students need to spend time in each center.”

Teachers at O’Connell Elementary typically commit a full 90-minute session per week to reviewing various data about their students, from formative assessments to in-class work. Grade-level teams review each student’s performance individually, and for those who are struggling, teachers will develop a specialized plan for each one. Plans usually consist of assigning students to small learning groups that hone in on practicing particular skills, such as reading fluency or phonemic awareness. (O’Connell faculty focused their intervention in 2013-14 almost exclusively on literacy.)

Leading each of these small groups are the teachers deemed most skilled in that area, not necessarily the students’ classroom teacher. “We share children,” explains Fox, O’Connell’s principal. “If we are going to make sure that every learner gets the optimal support he or she needs, then we need to take a team approach.”

The use of data to pinpoint student deficits and tailor instruction accordingly also relies on the integration of targeted intervention groups at Silvia, though these tend to be part and parcel of the full classroom, rather than take place during separate designated periods. Silvia’s long experience tracking student proficiency and growth over time has allowed the teachers to be more confident in differentiating instruction within each classroom.

Silvia also has the unusual practice of publicly posting individual student performance (anonymously) on each formative assessment in every classroom, so the students and teachers are literally surrounded by achievement data. Still, it is only through the systematic review of student performance that takes place during grade-team meetings that teachers develop the means and methods to differentiate effectively.

Principal Objective

Providing more time in school is a resource, not a strategy. It can be used in ways that directly address the core mission of schools — advancing student learning — or it can be squandered in a messy profusion of unstructured, unfocused moments that do little to promote growth. When it comes to spending added minutes, the paramount measure of its value is to what degree the potential additional opportunities for learning actually translate to more learning. And to realize the potential, adults in the building must harness their collective energies toward elevating quality of instruction and individualizing support.

The collaborative planning meeting, whose fundamental objective is no more and no less than making sure that every student’s time in school is productive and meaningful, is the epicenter of this process.

According to Mayo-Brown, most teachers had resisted common planning time because they experienced it as tightly managed by administrators. But then they noticed their teacher colleagues at Silvia truly owned their twice-weekly sessions, and the school became the district’s appealing model for translating teacher conversations into productive and meaningful classroom time.

Similarly, in East Hartford, the O’Connell faculty stands out as not just having the advantage of additional class time, but making the best use of that time through the mutual accountability for progress the teachers devised in collaborative planning meetings.

As other schools seek avenues to expand learning time for students, they should consider how to integrate more learning and sharing time for teachers, as well. They likely will find that more time for teachers leads to not just more, but better time for students.

Important Step Forward for Boston Public Schools

Statement from Jennifer Davis, Co-Founder & President of the National Center on Time & Learning (NCTL) and Massachusetts 2020, on today’s announcement from Mayor Martin Walsh, Superintendent John McDonough and Boston Teachers Union President Richard Stutman on the agreement to expand the school day at Boston elementary, middle and K-8 schools.

“This agreement is an important step forward for Boston Public Schools. I applaud Mayor Walsh, Superintendent McDonough, and BTU President Stutman for their leadership in acknowledging that we have to provide our teachers more time to work and learn together as peers and also more time to work with their students. Boston's diverse students will also benefit from the broader academic and enrichment opportunities that a redesigned and expanded school day enables.  

With this agreement, Boston is emerging as one of the country’s leaders as it embarks on a plan to strategically redesign and expand learning time for both teachers and students. Engaging teachers, administrators, parents, and community members in the process about how best to redesign and add time to the school day to ensure maximum impact will be a key next step.  The National Center on Time & Learning is eager to be supportive and share the best practices we have documented in this field over the last ten years.”

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