The “Brass Tacks” of Expanded Learning Time

Last spring, I visited Elizabeth, New Jersey to conduct some research on one of the few districts in the country that has expanded school time for all its schools (30 total) and students (about 24,000). Imagine: 24 K – 8 and six high schools with a school day of over eight hours. When you’ve been in this field as long as I have, finding a district that is clearly outside the mainstream in terms of its school structure makes you stand up and take notice. It must have been a momentous struggle to break so thoroughly from the conventional 6.5-hour day, I thought. And, yet, when I spoke with the district leaders, what struck me most was their perspective that instituting a long day was a pretty straightforward and, indeed, natural decision. In fact, when I asked the district business manager why more districts hadn’t invested in a strategy of expanded time, he shrugged and said candidly, “I don’t know. I guess they don’t realize how doable it is.”

Now by “doable”, this Elizabeth official did not mean that expanded day comes without some financial costs attached. For Elizabeth, the expenditures associated with expanding time for all its schools are roughly 9 percent higher outlays for teacher salaries this year.  (Salaries are higher for K – 8 teachers who work the eight-hour day; high school teachers stagger schedules to cover the full student day, but themselves work a seven-hour day.) There are also higher compensation rates for support personnel and administrators. Still, given the reality of paying staff more to work more hours, Elizabeth was able to prioritize this investment and make the expanded-day a reality. Put another way, when Elizabeth leaders actually examined the “brass tacks” of an expanded-time strategy, they found a reasonable path to implementation.

We delve more deeply into the financial picture of one school in Elizabeth, the Dr. Orlando Edreira Academy, together with four other expanded-time schools in our recently-released report, Financing Expanded Learning Time in Schools, which we released with support from The Wallace Foundation. Among the things we learned from these five schools was the lesson that the Elizabeth official was alluding to in his unassuming way. Providing more time for teaching and learning through an expanded school day (and/or year) is not free—after all, if the first 180 days and 6.5 hours have a cost, why shouldn’t more time also require more investment?—but that, in each case, the expansion is eminently doable.

In my mind, this was also the underlying message behind a recent piece by Boston Globe columnist, Scot Lehigh, in which he considered some “brass tacks” about the costs of expanding time for Massachusetts students. After running through the numbers, Lehigh concludes that to expand school time at elementary and middle schools serving a majority low-income population—the students who research shows benefit most from more school time—the state would need to allocate roughly $120 million to serve over 90,000 students across the Commonwealth.

Now, in previous writing, Lehigh has revealed himself to be a strong advocate of providing more time for teaching and learning to public schools.  In a column a year ago on the remarkable performance of charter schools in Boston, for example, Lehigh wrote, “The real reason charter students are showing big gains is obvious: They get significantly more school time.”

So, while the figure he puts out might seem high in the abstract, in actuality, it represents roughly 2 percent of what the state currently spends on K – 12 education (i.e., almost $5 billion). In other words, what this proposal really conveys to me is that same “can do” sentiment current expanded-time schools and districts often display. He is demonstrating to advocates and doubters alike that policymakers do not need to move heaven and earth to commit the resources needed to make this strategy take hold more broadly. Lehigh understands the benefits of expanding learning time. Now he wants to make it doable.