Thinking Differently About Time on Task
More time on task — growing evidence, along with simple common sense, shows that the more hours students engage in learning, the more they can boost their academic achievement. That, along with increasing concerns about the learning reversals students suffer over the summer, is why more and more school districts are starting to think beyond the confines of the six-hour-a-day, 180-day-a-year box.
An analysis by Education Sector, which has been closely following the issue of Extended Learning Time, finds that more than 1,500 public schools have either extended their schedules or plan to do so next year. More than half of these schools are low-performers with federal improvement grants. The others, according to the National Center on Time and Learning, are a mix of charter schools supported by networks and traditional public schools, mostly supported by states or districts. The state of Massachusetts supports extended time in 19 schools in 9 districts, and the Apollo initiative in Houston has supported longer schedules at 20 low-performing schools.
“Extended time” doesn’t have to mean any one kind of arrangement. Schools can add anything from a few minutes to 4 hours to the school day, or up to 30 days to the school year. They can make individual classes longer using block schedules. They can take a month out of the summer vacation, or work with a community-based organization to add time each day. They can also “find time” by leveraging the power and efficiencies of digital technology.
But if the possibilities for extending time are many, and the benefits clear, it is also obvious that many barriers are keeping promising ideas from being implemented and successful programs from growing and being replicated. Federal stimulus funding has helped, but it is unlikely to be repeated. Unfriendly regulations frustrate program operators. Partnerships among schools, community organizations and other groups essential to making high-quality expanded time workable can be hard to establish and maintain. Leadership is needed across all sectors and at every level. And hard evidence – particularly about what program features work best for children over time – is in frustratingly short supply.
What can we do at the federal level to extend learning time? That was a question posed at a conference on “Reimagining the School Day” sponsored by the Wallace Foundation. One thing blocking more ELT initiatives, participants agreed, is the widespread perception that regulation constrains action. Data-sharing is just one example. Programs would likely work better if schools and after-school programs exchanged information, but districts are often wary of doing so, concerned about student privacy and other legal considerations. While such fears are legitimate, they can also be overblown. And while red tape is more often real than imagined, other misconceptions can apply to how school districts spend federal dollars. One problem that seems peripheral — chronic absenteeism in extended time programs — can be relieved by changing the way attendance is tracked.
Whatever form it takes, expanded learning is an argument against some of the longest-held conventions about learning: that the existing timetable is the right one, that the traditional schedule provides enough opportunity for all children, and that the school-based format is somehow separate from learning beyond school walls. As Paul Reville, the commissioner of education for Massachusetts, put it: “We’re used to the way schools are. We’ve balanced our delicately framed lives around it.”
We need to think differently — because if we don’t increase learning opportunities, we will increase learning gaps.