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.