The Question

We hear the question every day: what is more important for student learning, the quality of time in school or the quantity? What years of study have demonstrated is that this question itself is a false choice. Both are essential and, in the real world of schools, the amount of time in schools relies on using it carefully and expansively to have an impact, just as quality time can be significantly enhanced when there is more time available.

Ignoring this basic dynamic between quantity and quality and trying to use research to back up one side or the other usually comes up short. The latest example I’ve seen comes from a paper put together by a parents group in Chicago. The unnamed authors of the paper, which argues against the district’s plan to expand the school day across the district, draw selectively from some research to make their case. For example, they cite a meta-analysis of expanded-time evaluations that determined only small positive effects of expanding time—even as the authors of the meta-analysis admit that “instructional practices can be viewed as mediators of extended school time effects on students.” In other words, considering only quantity of time misses the other half of the dynamic.
The Chicago paper also cites snippets of other research (including papers I’ve written) to suggest the limits of expanding time when, in fact, most of these other sources are actually suggesting that it is precisely because adding time has only an enabling effect on student achievement—not a causative one—that time must be considered in conjunction with other factors.  Interestingly, the paper ignores some of the most careful research that has, in fact, sought to isolate time as a factor in advancing student achievement, the most significant of which is the study conducted by Will Dobbie and Roland Fryer of the New York City charter schools. As they discovered, five factors—one of which is increased instructional time—accounts for over half of the between-school variation in outcomes.  
In just a few days, we’ll release a research brief that summarizes the many pieces of evidence suggesting how time plays a pivotal role in school reform efforts, but, I’m the first to admit that analytic research can only go so far because education is such a complex process. There is rarely a straight line from Point A to Point B. Instead, it is best to understand the quantity-quality dynamic by examining closely what is actually happening in schools—how schools actually leverage expanded time to increase and strengthen learning opportunities for all students. For my money, the best exploration of the mutually re-enforcing effects of time is found in our study, Time Well Spent: Eight Powerful Practices of Successful, Expanded-Time Schools.  In it, the case is stated plainly that success in schools occurs when time is allowed to interact with and drive (a) the work of teachers and principals, (b) the use of data, and (c) the cultivation of excellence (culture). Only together can these components have their maximum impact.  Isolated from one another—including not having sufficient time to make all the components work in concert—the efforts to improve student outcomes will remain more limited.
Fortunately for Chicago, because adding significantly more time has been factored into the overall school improvement strategy for the district, individual schools stand poised to have a big impact on student learning. And what more could Chicago parents ask for.