When Jeffery Smith took over as superintendent in 2009, the Balsz Elementary School District in northeast Phoenix was in trouble. Enrollment was down. Students failed to meet federal and state performance standards. The state labeled two of the district's five schools as underperforming.
Balsz Elementary School District faced considerable socio-economic challenges. About 90 percent of the student population qualified for free or reduced lunch. More than half of their students are listed with English as their second language.
During Smith's tenure, district scores have skyrocketed. Reading scores are up 19 percent for third- and fourth-grade students and 43 percent for grades five and six. About 85 percent of students in sixth grade met or exceeded state and federal standards in reading.
Smith managed this feat working with the same teachers, the same students, and the same limited resources. His solution however, was surprisingly simple: The district adopted a 200-day school calendar. Classes start on July 25 and end June 8.
About 1,000 of America's 14,000 public school districts have adopted extended-learning time schedules, keeping students in class well past 3 p.m. and deep into the summer months. Extended learning time is the latest education reform aimed at closing the achievement gap and making American students more competitive globally.
Arne Duncan, U.S. education secretary, aggressively supports the reform arguing that the United States is falling behind global competitors who aren't bound by the traditional 180-day school year. "Right now children in India, children in China and other places, they're going to school, 30, 35 days more than our students. If you are on a sports team and you're practicing three days a week and the other team is practicing five days a week, who is going to win more?" he asked at a September 2011 round-table discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington-based think tank. "If we are serious about closing achievement gaps — we can't keep doing business as usual."
Data on the connection between the test scores and time in class is powerful. Independent research suggests that more time in class raises student achievement. Anecdotes abound of schools that have gone from failing to thriving simply by adopting an extended schedule. "Differences in instructional time can and do affect school performance as measured by No Child Left Behind," said Dave Marcotte, a University of Maryland professor of public policy.
But despite the encouraging results, there are issues associated with a large scale implementation of extended time learning in U.S. schools. The considerable economic and political cost of this type of reform is immense, notes Marcotte. Other critics of extended learning time say that time in class is not the problem, it is quality of instruction. "Research suggests that student achievement is dependent on the quality of instruction, not the length of the school day," said Terry Stoops, director of education at the John Locke Foundation, a North Carolina-based in dependent think tank. "Extending the school calendar without making improvements to the curriculum and teacher quality would subject students to additional hours of unproductive instruction," he said. Still, advocates of a longer school year argue that extended time learning not only delivers improved test scores, but there are cost-effective ways to implement it, including community partnerships, adaptive software, and modifying teacher contracts.
Practice makes perfect
Edwards Middle School in Boston faces immense challenges. Ninety percent of the students are minorities and the same percentage live in high poverty, meaning they come from households earning less than $23,000 per year. About 25 percent of the students have limited English skills, 30 percent are coded as special needs. In 2008 the school was failing and on the verge of being shut down.
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