Breaking from the Norm - Expanded-Time Schools Are Doable

In a few weeks, NCTL will make available an update to our national database of expanded-time schools.  As a recent NBC News segment previewed, NCTL has now identified significantly more expanded-time schools across the country. They have taken root in almost every state, with some states boasting well over 100 such schools. In short, there is little question that momentum to expand learning time for students in every corner of the country continues to build.

Just because the number of schools is growing, however, does not mean that creating or, especially, converting to schools with longer days (and/or years) is easy; Implementing an institutional structure that deliberately diverges from the norm—in this case, a typical school schedule of about 180 6.5-hour days—means that implementers must confront the challenges of operating outside the standard system. Everything from salary schedules to busing routes to psychological expectations are aligned to school structure that has been in place for a century. Re-arranging those elements to instead support a school schedule that is substantially longer usually takes both additional and creative re-organization of existing resources, not to mention a tremendous amount of human will to execute these necessary modifications.

I bring up this fundamental truth of the expanded-time field—disrupting the status quo cannot really be done without some degree of difficulty— because it is clearly reflected in some of the key findings from a recent study on 17 expanded-time schools in four states from the Center on Education Policy. For example, the authors report that school leaders expressed concerns that the costs associated with expanding time, coupled with the time-limited duration of federal grants that covered most of these costs, meant that the model may not be sustainable. Additionally, school leaders noted that the implementation of more time often entailed contract negotiations with teachers’ unions.

But what these findings really show, of course, is not that expanded-time schools are too difficult to put in place, but rather that the current system of public education may be too rigid to readily accommodate schools that do provide substantially more time for students and teachers. The problem is not with the disruption to the standard, but with the standard itself.

In my opinion, then, the best way to break the “stranglehold” of the standard school schedule is for more and more individual schools to prove what 2,000 before them have: breaking from the norm may be hard, but it is doable.  They’ll also discover what so many other expanded-time schools have found, too. Longer days (and/or years) benefit students not only by providing greater quantity of instructional time, but also elevate instructional quality, as teachers, like those in the CEP study, have more time to work together to improve instruction together.

Ultimately, I believe that as the number of schools seeking more learning time continues to rise—a near inevitability, I think, because our expectations for students have grown so justifiably high, more time is just about a necessity for many, many students—the less the current norm will seem… well, normal.  Expanded-time schools as a distinct type will fade, leaving behind a whole system built on the expectation that all schools must provide the learning time their students need.

POSTSCRIPT: I also wanted to note that the CEP report does give props to NCTL for its financial analysis study that we released last year and we appreciate the citation. However, there is one factual error that I wanted to correct.  In the reference, the authors note that we studied districts that added between 132 and 540 minutes to the school year.  The actual unit of measurement is additional hours to the school year.