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.
Families in well-to-do neighborhoods often don't need or want public schools to assume so much responsibility for their children's activities, Gabrieli said. Kids in middle- and upper-class families benefit from an enormous increase in "purchased supplements" to school, Gabrieli said — tutoring, music lessons and increasingly sophisticated sports offerings to name but a few.
Inner-city kids with working parents face a different scenario when the school bell rings.
"High-poverty kids, who are doing least well in school anyway, have very few opportunities outside school," Gabrieli said. "They are returning to communities and homes that are risky, in terms of temptations." Expanded-day proposals run into pushback in middle-class communities, but are usually embraced with open arms in high-poverty areas, he said.
At Brooklyn's P.S. 186, which serves a low-income neighborhood, many parents consider the expanded-day program a boon that ensures their children are safe and learning during their working hours. The program also saves on child-care expenses, principal Cadotte said.
"A lot of our families can't take their children to dance and theater classes — financially and because of time," Cadotte said. "This is a one-stop shop where kids are able to get so much all day long. We feel like it is a balance between academics and the arts, and a win-win for kids and parents, all in one location."
P.S. 186 saw a sharp improvement in performance on New York City's school grading system since implementing its expanded school program two years ago. The school's student achievement grade, based on results of state tests in English and math, improved from C to A. An improvement from B to A in the overall school progress grade was especially heartening, Cadotte said. The school progress grade incorporates student achievement, school environment and progress at closing the achievement gap for low-income and minority students.
Cadotte said her school worked with existing after-school programs in its neighborhood that already had funding. With help from The After School Corporation — the national nonprofit group that launched the ExpandED Schools initiative — community after-school programs became a seamless part of the school day for over half of the P.S. 186's students. State funding and grants allowed the school's teachers to work longer hours if they chose.
The ExpandED program at P.S. 186 presently serves only a part of the school population, but the model works even better when the expanded programs are fully integrated for all of a school's students, said TASC President Lucy Friedman.
"We want all kids to get what privileged kids get," Friedman said. "This very narrow focus on literacy and math makes it feel like school is not connected to life. The notion is that if you expose kids to a whole range of activities, they find what they are passionate about."
Public-private partnerships like the ExpandED Schools initiative are one of several ways of expanding the school day. The movement to add more time to the school day is also being fed by innovative charter schools. Among those, the national network of Knowledge is Power schools typically run from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The schools are lauded for higher-than-typical achievement scores and graduation rates for the large proportion of low-income and minority students they serve.
Several states are buying into the expanded school idea, Gabrieli said. Massachusetts, New York and California are among those that have enabled expanded time in public schools through legislative funding to high-poverty schools. Computer software that adapts to a student's level is being used in many expanded-day programs to helps kids who are struggling to catch up, as well as those who are ready move ahead, he said.
More time and money won't help if they are not well-spent, Gabrieli cautioned. The National Center on Time & Learning report suggests that additional time be used for more engaged interaction in academic classes; broader curricula; enrichment activities that boost school engagement; and more time for teacher collaboration and professional development.
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