WASHINGTON — Open your notebooks and sharpen your pencils. School for thousands of public school students is about to get quite a bit longer.
Five states announced Monday that they will add at least 300 hours of learning time to the calendar in some schools starting in 2013. Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee will take part in the initiative, which is intended to boost student achievement and make U.S. schools more competitive on a global level.
The three-year pilot program will affect almost 20,000 students in 40 schools, with long-term hopes of expanding the program to include additional schools — especially those that serve low-income communities. Schools, working in concert with districts, parents and teachers, will decide whether to make the school day longer, add more days to the school year or both.
All told, education officials expect to provide nearly 6 million more student learning hours next year.
"I'm convinced the kind of results we'll see over the next couple of years I think will compel the country to act in a very different way," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
A mix of federal, state and district funds will cover the costs of expanded learning time, with the Ford Foundation and the National Center on Time & Learning also chipping in resources. In Massachusetts, the program builds on the state's existing expanded-learning program. In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel Malloy is hailing it as a natural outgrowth of an education reform law the state passed in May that included about $100 million in new funding, much of it to help the neediest schools.
Spending more time in the classroom, officials said, will give students access to a more well-rounded curriculum that includes arts and music, individualized help for students who fall behind and opportunities to reinforce critical math and science skills.
"That extra time with their teachers or within a structured setting means all the world," said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. "It means it allows them to continue the momentum they had the day before. It means they don't slip back over the summer. It allows them to really deliver."
At Stober Elementary in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, Colo., teachers and principals nervously embraced the idea.
"It's hard to get through all the curriculum in the time we have," said fourth grade teacher Jeanette Martinez, although she wondered how it would affect planning time and other teacher duties. "The extra hour is cool, but where are we going to get everything else done?"
Not all students were opposed, either, with some welcoming the chance to spend more time with their friends. But they drew the line at summer school.
"That's a 'no way' for me," fourth grader Olivia Nevadomski said in a school playground interview. "It's for sleepovers, staying up late and sleeping in."
The project comes as educators across the U.S. struggle to identify the best ways to strengthen a public education system that many fear has fallen behind other nations. Student testing, teacher evaluations, charter schools and voucher programs join longer school days on the list of reforms that have been put forward with varying degrees of success.
The report from the center, which advocates for extending instruction time, cites research suggesting students who spend more hours learning perform better. One such study, from Harvard economist Roland Fryer, argues that of all the factors affecting educational outcomes, two are the best predictors of success: intensive tutoring and adding at least 300 hours to the standard school calendar.
More classroom time has long been a priority for Duncan, who warned a congressional committee in May 2009 — just months after becoming education secretary — that American students were at a disadvantage compared to their peers in India and China. That same year, he suggested schools should be open six or seven days per week and should run 11 or 12 months out of the year.
"I think this is the kernels of a national movement," he said Monday as he announced the initiative.
But not everyone agrees that shorter school days are to blame. A report last year from the National School Boards Association's Center for Public Education disputed the notion that American schools have fallen behind in classroom time, pointing out that students in high-performing countries like South Korea, Finland and Japan actually spend less time in school than most U.S. students.
The broader push to extend classroom time could also run up against concerns from teachers unions. Longer school days became a major sticking point in a seven-day teachers strike in September in Chicago. Mayor Rahm Emanuel eventually won an extension of the school day but paid the price in other concessions granted to teachers.
Just over 1,000 U.S. schools already operate on expanded schedules, an increase of 53 percent over 2009, according to a report being released Monday in connection with the announcement by the National Center on Time & Learning. The nonprofit group said more schools should follow suit but stressed that expanded learning time isn't the right strategy for every school.
Some of the funds required to add 300 or more hours to the school calendar will come from shifting resources from existing federal programs, making use of the flexibility granted by waivers to No Child Left Behind. All five states taking part in the initiative have received waivers from the Education Department.
Associated Press writer Kristen Wyatt in Lakewood, Colo., contributed to this report.
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