Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

A Step in Time

obriena's picture

When implemented well, expanded learning time (lengthening the school day, school week and/or school year) has led to impressive results in schools around the country. And U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has long called on more schools to embrace the policy, both because he believes that American students spend less time in school than students in the nations we are competing with (though some evidence suggests that might not be the case) and because he believes that the hours between 3pm and 6pm are the peak hours for juvenile crime (which evidence supports).

The Secretary was on hand yesterday at the introduction of the TIME (Time for Innovation Matters in Education) Collaborative, a partnership between the National Center on Time in Learning (NCTL) and the Ford Foundation that will allow participating schools in five states (Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee) to add 300 hours of instruction and enrichment for all their children. To be a part of the collaborative, states and districts had to agree to use a mix of federal, state and district funding to cover the costs associated with the added time (though the Ford Foundation is committing funds to it for the next three years as well). Thanks to this initiative, over 19,500 students in 11 school districts will benefit from an expanded school calendar starting in the 2013-14 school year.

Of course, as Secretary Duncan pointed out at the event, the goal isn’t actually more time in class. It is more learning. And as Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville reminded us, if we in the education community just throw more time on the school day and don’t end up with any results to show for it, policymakers will retreat from the idea of expanded learning time extremely quickly. Those participating in the collaborative must ensure that this additional learning time is used well.

I personally am always skeptical that any one policy decision will have a significant impact on student achievement, so I will be interested to see how this plays out. One reason for optimism is the recognition by all the key players in the collaborative that while this is an expanded learning time initiative, more time will not necessarily equal better results. Rather, the time will allow schools and districts to engage in a number of best practices that together will hopefully have the desired impact.

So how is the TIME Collaborative working to ensure results? A number of ways, including requiring schools to focus on evidence-based practices such as using data to inform and improve instruction; expanding time available for teachers to collaborate; providing a rigorous, well-rounded curriculum for all students, along with individualized help for students who are struggling; and promoting a school-wide culture of high expectations. To help participating districts and schools implement these practices, NCTL will be offering on-site technical assistance at no cost.

To me, the most important aspect of this initiative and the reason for the most optimism is the requirement that participating schools undergo a year-long, inclusive planning process that solicits feedback from administrators, teachers, community members, union officials, and parents. Time and time again, school improvement efforts are hindered by a top-down approach that doesn’t recognize the importance of building consensus around a new reform idea. For example, I recently wrote about an experiment in year-round schooling that seems to have been foiled in large part because the district did not take time to develop stakeholder support before implementing a policy that drastically impacted the daily lives of those in the community. But it seems like those involved in the TIME Collaborative recognize the importance of stakeholder buy-in. Hopefully, they will see great success.

Image by Jorge Barrios (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons