Zooming In on the Impact of More Time

Last week, there was yet another study published on the connection between instructional time and student outcomes on international tests.  Now, typically, these studies try to discern a correlation at the national level, looking at how well students in countries with more time in math or literacy classes (or with more school time overall) perform compared to students in countries with less. The problem with these analyses, though, is that they end up using a large dataset to look at simply one factor among many that may contribute to learning. The result, unsurprisingly, is that the associations are found to be fairly weak.
The new study, however, takes a different approach. Rather than comparing students nation by nation, the authors consider each individual student and his/her school as the unit of analysis. That is, by drawing upon the over 47,000 students tested in the PISA test program as the sample, they are more likely to discern patterns between learning time and outcomes. Further, the authors do, in fact, consider other elements within schools (e.g., frequency of teacher coaching)  and classrooms (e.g., frequency of student disruptions) that are likely to have an effect on learning. By accounting for these, they are better able to carefully pinpoint the context in which the amount of instructional time correlates most strongly to learning outcomes. 
If you are a frequent visitor to this blog, you’ll be unsurprised by their findings:
The empirical analysis provides strong evidence in favor of the notion that additional class time raises achievement using a series of specifications and measures of instructional time [i.e., minutes per week and number of classes per week]…. Perhaps most important, the benefit of additional instructional time appears to vary with the quality of the classroom environment.
At NCTL, we have the benefit of seeing how this finding plays out in schools that we work with, and I want to draw your attention to two of these schools in Massachusetts. McKinley Elementary in Revere and Huntington Elementary in Brockton joined the Expanded Learning Time Initiative last year, becoming the latest district schools to add at least 300 hours of instruction to the school year through the Massachusetts’ competitive grant program. In the year leading up to the conversion to a longer day, both schools participated in a rigorous planning protocol with Massachusetts 2020, NCTL’s state affiliate. 
When September 2012 rolled around, the principals and teachers were ready to go. They lengthened English and math classes and developed designated intervention blocks for struggling students in both subjects. At McKinley, students also experienced a targeted class in writing three times per week. Each school also built in enrichment activities into the lengthened day. In short, though they are both still works in progress, improving the “quality of the classroom environment,” as the researchers put it, was an obvious focus of the educators in these schools. They were not providing just “more”, but “more, better.”
Then, as the research from the PISA outcomes would predict, when you give more time to students in quality classrooms, outcomes improve. Take a look, for example, at the rise in scores over the last year for the 5th graders in both schools, and in both ELA and math:
Increases of this degree do not happen by accident. Teachers must be well prepared to leverage more time to have this kind of effect. Candidly, we’ve seen schools over the years which, after converting to a longer day, do not experience significant increases in student achievement like these two schools have. So, we know that more time alone is not the answer. But if a school plans well and has teachers and leaders committed to improving instruction, then expanding the school day can have an immediate impact on student learning. Talk about putting research into action.