Time Matters in School

This is a guest post by Jennifer Davis, NCTL's  Co-Founder & President

The recent research brief from the National School Boards Association, an analysis of the quantity of instructional time in various countries, concludes by noting that what really matters with instructional time is “how effectively that time is used.” Here at NCTL, we agree with that point, and also agree that “providing extra time is only useful if that time is used wisely.” 

Communities are faced with this basic question every day: how can we optimize learning for all students? In this context, Jodi Grant, Executive Director of The Afterschool Alliance, responded to the NSBA research brief by highlighting the importance of after-school programs that “have the ability and flexibility to be creative and provide individualized learning.  A student might learn engineering principles by building a rollercoaster; pick up chemistry lessons by working in a forensic lab, or master fractions and decimals in a baseball game.”  
Ms. Grant is right about the power of individualized learning, but she sets her sights too low. Activities like the ones she mentions have tremendous educational value, so why shouldn’t schools that are also serious about engaging students have the opportunity to offer them, too?  As she correctly notes, middle- and upper-class parents pay for these activities and more during out-of-school time and low-income children should have access to them too. 
And that is the crux of the issue: School leaders in disadvantaged communities have come to recognize that voluntary afterschool programs cannot penetrate deeply enough into their school population; have a particularly difficult time reaching the children at the school who tend to have the greatest need; and have significantly lower attendance than the regular school day. Faced with those realities, these leaders have found that expanding learning time in school can mean providing new, engaging, and individualized learning experiences in a cost-effective manner and delivering them to all students. 
As we detail in our recent publication, Time Well Spent: Eight Powerful Practices of Successful, Expanded-Time Schools, having more time expands the range of what is possible within the school, but what makes these schools ultimately successful is that they seize these opportunities: They use time well.
At NCTL, we work to support schools as they create effective expanded-time models like the ones profiled in Time Well Spent and we are heartened to see the U.S. Department of Education offering states flexibility in the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program through its ESEA waiver process. Currently, states give grants to school districts or community groups to run afterschool or summer programs, usually in school buildings, but those programs must be held during times when school is not in session. In states that apply for the new flexibility, schools would not be limited to applying for afterschool or summer programs. They could also apply to use the funding to help create high-quality expanded learning time schools. High-quality expanded-time schools offer a well-rounded education for all students including time for academics and enrichment -- often provided by community partners -- and for common planning and teacher collaboration to ensure that instructional time is used better.
Every child deserves an excellent education, including many enriching educational experiences. We cannot let the debate about which adults provide educational programming and where the funds come from hinder our ability to meet that mission. Fortunately, the 21st Century program is a competitive grant program – it should fund the best afterschool programs, the best summer programs, and the highest-quality expanded-time schools.