In most U.S. schools, the school day and year are the same length today as 100 years ago — 6 ½ hours, 180 days. Expectations for what schools must crowd into that time have risen sharply, though. Concerns that American workers need better preparation to keep up with global competition have increased school hours spent on math and English language arts, especially since the advent of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2002.
Between 2002 and 2007, weekly time allotted to math and English in U.S. schools grew by an average of 230 minutes, according to a 2008 study by the Center on Education Policy.
The sharpened focus on a narrow list of pursuits limits school time for social studies, geography, art, music, physical education, recess and field trips. It shrinks time for projects that let kids get their hands dirty, and learn from mistakes. It lessens chances to practice new skills until they are mastered. And it squeezes out time for exercising creativity, and learning social graces that foster fulfilling lives and careers.
It's a tough trade-off that has education reformers looking hard at the traditional school schedule, experimenting with ways to expand available learning time to better match learning needs, especially for low-income students whose families can't provide the enrichment activities middle-class kids benefit from during after-school hours.
In 2012, more than 1,000 public schools in the U.S. operated with an expanded schedule — mostly elementary and middle schools that added an extra two to three hours per school day. That's a marked increase over previous years, according to a new report from the National Center on Time & Learning, an education policy group based in Boston.
Expanded-time schools are most often found in urban areas serving a high percent of low-income minority students. Because the movement is young, comprehensive national data on outcomes for students is lacking, the report said, but early results around the nation are promising.
Research from Harvard economist Roland Fryer showed that at charter schools in New York, increasing instructional time by 300 hours per year and using high-dosage tutoring were the two strongest predictors of higher achievement. A study from Illinois schools validated that the more time students spent in reading and math classes, the higher their scores in those subjects.
"There is a significantly expanding movement in this country to challenge the orthodoxy of the school schedule," said Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the National Center on Time & Learning. "People are finally facing the fact that the school schedule wasn't set by what we need to do to get the job done."
Especially in high poverty areas, adding more learning time has become a key strategy for boosting school success and life opportunities for millions of low-income students now on the wrong side of the nation's long-standing school achievement gap, Gabrieli said.
In 2011, an ExpandED Schools initiative began to extend learning time at 11 elementary and middle schools in New York City, Baltimore and New Orleans, adding three hours to the conventional school day for disadvantaged students in urban schools through a blend of public and private funds. Schools in the program increased their math proficiency, surpassing citywide gains in each of the three cities. Likewise, attendance improved and chronic absenteeism declined.
Bayan Cadotte, principal of Brooklyn's Public School 186 elementary school, radiated enthusiasm as she recounted the return to her school of enrichment programs cut because of time and money constraints. Students at her school once again dance, sing, play musical instruments and put on plays, Cadotte said. Homework tutoring and test prep sessions help students master their schoolwork. A character training program boosts social and stress management skills.
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