The Drive for More Learning Time Around the Country
In addition to the current and growing federal support for expanded school time, an increasing number of states around the country have implemented policies and programs that prioritize more learning time to accelerate school reform and raise student proficiency. These examples can be used as models for other states as they seek to expand learning time to improve academic achievement, strengthen instruction, and provide a more well-rounded education for the children in their schools.
At the state level, Massachusetts continues its commitment to expanding time for a targeted number of schools through a competitive grant program, the Expanded Learning Time (ELT) Initiative, which now funds 19 schools to add 300 hours to the year as they build in more time for academics, enrichment, and teacher collaboration. Other states, including Colorado and Oklahoma, have formed statewide commissions to explore and implement expanded time in schools. The Colorado Expanded Learning Opportunities Commission recently released its full report, “Beyond Walls, Clocks, and Calendars: Rethinking Public Education in Colorado” a bold call for expanding school time well beyond what is the norm for Colorado’s schools today.
Other states taking direct action on learning time include Washington state, which passed a bill in 2009 that transitions the instructional year from a district-wide annual average of 1,000 hours to a minimum 1,080 instructional hours for students in grades 7 to 12 and a minimum 1,000 instructional hours for students in grades 1 to 6. For kindergartners, the instructional year will increase from a minimum of 450 instructional hours to at least 1,000 instructional hours.
Connecticut has passed a law which allows low-performing schools to add instructional hours as a strategy to raise student achievement. Likewise, the Maryland legislature, in 2010, directed the state board of education to explore the use of innovative school scheduling models in low-performing and at-risk schools, including extended-year, year-round, or other models that do not allow for prolonged lapses in instructional time.
Meanwhile, public backlash to the drastic reduction of 17 school days in Hawaii in 2009-2010 prompted the state legislature to restore the school year to 180 days for 2011-2012 and to call for expansion of both the school day and year in future school years.
A growing number of state laws are enabling districts, both large and small, to increase learning time in a variety of ways.
All 25 district schools in the Louisiana Recovery District operate on an expanded school day (a standard 8.5 hours) and most of the 46 charters in New Orleans feature a longer day and/or year, as well. Recent legislation in Illinois will enables the Chicago Public Schools to expand its school schedule, a priority of the new mayor, Rahm Emanuelprocess the district has already begun in the 2011-2012 school year. A set of “Pioneer Schools” has added 90 minutes to the school day, with plans that all schools in the district will undertake such a daily addition in the coming year.
Historically, charter schools have represented the largest source of expanded-time schools in America, as roughly 6 in 10 operate with a longer day and/or year for the express purpose of enhancing teaching and learning. Because newly enacted state laws in at least 13 states lift caps on the number of charter schools allowed, the overall count of expanded-time charter schools is almost certain to rise in the near future.
Expansion of Learning Time Even in an Era of Budget Constraints
Many states have found that building in more (and more productive) learning time is not only necessary for boosting student outcomes; these states are also discovering that they can expand and re-configure time in cost-effective ways that do not place significant added stress on budgets.
States and districts are supporting schools that have adopted staggered teacher schedules, so that teachers do not work more hours, but students attend for more hours during the day (e.g., Buffalo) or more days across the year (e.g., Brooklyn Generations). Many other schools utilize technology as an instructional tool in academic support classes (in Chicago and Rocketship Academy, for example). This approach allows for a higher student-to-staff ratio, and, simultaneously, an effective real-time method of tracking student progress through software-based learning programs. Collaborations with community-based organizations are also offering an increasing number of schools opportunities to expand time and programming by bringing external resources to support student learning.
Even the costs of funding expanded time through grants to schools are not directly proportional to the rest of the school day. The Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time Initiative, for example, which distributes grants to schools to support 300 additional school hours, compensates schools at a rate of about one third the rate of the conventional school year, because schools are able to leverage fixed administration and operational costs.
A burgeoning trend among states is to develop accountability practices that prioritize learning over “seat time.” Approximately 35 states have policies that allow districts to grant students credit for courses by demonstrating knowledge and skills without regard to the amount of time they spend in that particular class. Known as a “proficiency-based credit” system, the intent is to better serve the needs of all learners and, in effect, means that schools will support students until they achieve mastery, no matter how long it takes.
As state policymakers consider action to expand learning time, they should keep in mind three overarching principles:
- • Align resources with the diverse needs of students: Different populations need different amounts of time to achieve proficiency and this variation must be factored into the education system.
- • Highlight what works: Understanding how current expanded-time schools have leveraged the power of time—and done so in cost-effective ways—can help lead others to innovate, as well.
- • Incentivize innovation: Granting schools flexibility over staffing and budgeting can lead to innovative use of expanded time, empowering educators to address individual student needs and develop a culture of high expectations.
States should resist calls to cut school time and instead grant greater flexibility to districts to innovate with expanded-time models that are both educationally valuable and cost-effective. States also can spur the development of positive expanded-time models by creating competitive grant programs that stimulate schools to redesign their educational program around more school time.