What We Can Learn About Expanding Learning Time from New Haven, CT

A recent story out of New Haven, CT has been making the rounds in the education reform world. The tale is of one school’s effort to expand learning time and how that attempt failed to meet expectations.  Here’s the story in brief, as reported by Melissa Bailey of the Hechinger Report:

Based on a landmark teachers contract that made work rules more flexible, New Haven in 2010 tapped one of its lowest-performing schools, Brennan-Rogers, to undergo a turnaround, where the principal replaced two-thirds of teachers and imposed a longer school day.

Principal Karen Lott extended students’ day by an hour and 25 minutes –– then scrapped the longer day one year later when it didn’t work out. The experiment had exhausted students and teachers without making progress towards its goal: closing the achievement gap between her largely poor and minority students and their suburban peers.

Those of us who are advocates of expanded-time for students in low-income communities might be disheartened hearing of this “failure”.  But let me take a minute to unpack the story to explain why this one school should not be considered any sort of bellwether for future efforts to implement high-quality expanded learning time.  The analysis breaks down into three basic points:

1.       Choice – Note the word “imposed” at the end of the first sentence.  This attempt to lengthen the day for students and teachers came without any discussion, any efforts to earn the support of those who are supposed to be better served by the lengthening of the day—namely, parents and students.  In fact, further down in the article, the reporter makes the point that “students, who did not have advanced notice of the changes, felt punished.” Expanding time is, ultimately, about re-designing not just the structure of a school’s educational program, but also about shifting the behaviors of both children and adults to be more conducive to learning. Improvements in educational outcomes will rarely be achieved when only structures are changed and not minds.

2.       Planning – In reading this story, it becomes clear that the school took the dramatic step of expanding the school day by 85 minutes without sufficiently planning for the many contingencies and complications that inevitably arise for undertaking such a reform (typically we recommend at least 6 months of planning). For example, while teachers were able to get paid more for their longer hours, the contracts of school support staff (e.g., secretaries and paraprofessionals) were not amended and so the school had to scramble to cover classrooms and other duties during the last portion of the day. Had the school planned sufficiently for the transition to a longer day and worked out all the contract issues for all school staff, such problems would likely not have arisen.  As it was, the lack of planning caused unacceptable levels of stress among the adults in the building.

3.       Duration – The principal decided in March of the first school year that student outcomes had not improved and, thus, the “experiment” in having more learning time had failed.  Anyone who has worked with schools undertaking substantial school reform will tell you that it takes at least three years before academic outcomes begin to show steady gains.  The reason for the delay, in large part, is that improved educational quality is not simply about having more minutes of learning time, but also about modifying instructional practices to take advantage of the greater quantity of lesson time.  Such modification cannot happen instantaneously; human beings are not machines. Rather, teachers and students need repeated and continuous opportunities to assimilate content and develop skills in different ways than they have in the past. And only after these novel experiences of learning build up will students begin to deepen their knowledge and skills in ways that can be measured by standard assessments.  The research, by the way, is clear that major school reform does not typically begin to show progress until into at least the third year.

Given these considerations, it is not surprising to me that the New Haven elementary school did not show major progress after only one year and that their implementation was not judged to be ‘high-quality’. In fact, it would have been surprising if without adequate buy-in, planning, and timeline, the effort had somehow succeeded.

Before we let the story end here, however, I would be remiss in not recognizing a main thrust of the article, which is that expanded time still has had a marked impact on the school. Granted the time is not for students, but the school has maintained a longer day for its teachers. As the article explains:

For the past three years, teachers have met for an hour each morning without kids. Some days, they work with colleagues teaching the same grade to plan field trips or interdisciplinary projects on topics like slavery. Other days, they learn how to use iPads and Apple TVs. Teachers also comb through student data, help each other plan lessons and analyze how those lessons went…. Though the day is shorter, instruction is more efficient, said sixth-grade teacher Tavares Bussey. “The kids are getting more out of it.”

As we detailed in our report Time for Teachers, having more time for teachers to collaborate, to plan, and to reflect is essential for improving instruction and, in turn, educational outcomes. Schools everywhere—especially those serving mostly kids from disadvantaged backgrounds—should take note of the experience of this New Haven elementary school. Indeed, the district of New Haven certainly has, rewriting its teacher contract for the whole district to require more time for teacher collaboration.  Getting teachers to work more effectively (and often) together is a key first step in strengthening schools.

Still, improving educational outcomes for students in low-income communities will ultimately reach a limit within the confines of a typical American school day and year. I hope that the New Haven school is able to find a way to take another try at expanding learning time for all its students—and this time with the proper planning and process. The bottom line, as I’ve written many times, is that expanding time for schools is no easy task. It takes inordinate amounts of foresight, coordination, and patience to reap a payoff. But seeing students who live in communities of concentrated poverty improve their life’s prospects because of the superior education they’ve received is, in my estimation, always worth that effort.