Turnarounds and Time

Today's blog was published on The Center on School Turnaround's blog on November, 17, 2014.

Until 2009, the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) Program had been a comparatively modest program within Title I. However, a boost in base funding to $546 million—along with a one-time infusion of $3 billion from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—cast SIG in a new role as the de facto leader in the field of whole-school redesign. So, when the U.S. Department of Education (USED) identified “increased learning time” as a core component of the turnaround process, the issue of expanding the school day and year took center stage.

The fact that the USED held out “more time” as a high-impact practice of strong schools is not surprising. Research from Harvard economist Roland Fryer, among others, has found that a schedule with substantially more annual hours than the norm is strongly associated with higher student outcomes. (Specifically, Fryer and his colleague identified that instructional time of at least 300 more hours than the conventional calendar is one of the strongest predictors of higher achievement, along with high-dosage tutoring, consistent feedback to teachers, use of data, and high expectations). But having a longer day and/or year is not just a matter of providing students more “time on task”; an expanded schedule can actually catalyze the implementation of other essential elements of effective schools, like robust instructional practices and the systematic use of data. The 2011 report Time Well Spent, released by our organization, the National Center on Time and Learning (NCTL), describes well how the best schools harness the opportunities that more time affords to generate higher-quality education overall.

Unfortunately, the first couple rounds the SIG guidance regarding increased learning time (ILT) was somewhat vague on implementation, and anecdotal evidence suggests that most schools interpreted the ILT provision by taking a remedial or compliance approach to focus on minimally meeting the requirement. That is, schools provided more time only for those students who were struggling the most in order to boost their proficiency in literacy and math or added more time without leveraging this opportunity to improve instruction. While this application of ILT is surely necessary, limiting the benefits of more time to a subset of students and activities, rather than expanding the school day for all students and teachers, means that more time cannot be leveraged to drive a much broader and deeper school turnaround.  On the other hand, for those SIG schools that did allow more learning time to drive a whole school redesign, like Orchard Gardens K – 8 in Boston, Massachusetts, and Tumbleweed Elementary in Palmdale, California, the results have been very positive.

Further, without a sufficient pre-implementation period built into the SIG turnaround process, grant recipient schools often lacked the ability to engage in the complex redesign planning that the effective harnessing of more time entails.

In September, the USED proposed a significant revision to the SIG program, which offers a remedy to these limitations (including addressing the pre-implementation period and incorporated a fifth turnaround model.) Currently, there are four—only two of which require the use of more time—but in the future states could be allowed develop their own models. The only requirement of this state-determined model is that it must include ILT. As the USED proposal reads, “The Department believes that the comprehensive implementation of ILT would provide essential support for key improvements in teaching and learning required by interventions consistent with the turnaround principles, and thus should be included in any State-determined intervention model approved by the Secretary.” Additionally, the proposed rule would increase the length of the grants from three to five years, allowing for a planning year at the beginning of the grants.

Already, five states—Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee—have demonstrated that a school redesign model, which embeds 300 more hours into the annual schedule, can have a marked impact. By participating in a months-long, carefully calibrated planning process that focuses on how to optimize time use toward improved student learning, the 30-plus schools that NCTL works with in our TIME Collaborative represent the cutting-edge of turnaround efforts. If the proposed new SIG rules are enacted, the number of schools that might follow in these schools’ footsteps can grow substantially. In turn, the positive impact of high-quality, expanded-time schools on student achievement promises to accelerate.