Make Sure Children’s Cabinets Matter

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All of a sudden, it seems, time is on everyone’s mind.

In New York state, for example, the governor is challenging schools to increase students’ “time on task” through a variety of possible approaches, including longer school days, a longer school year, after-school programs and changes in the structure of the school day.

Meanwhile, at least four new reports have crossed my desk analyzing various aspects of time use: “A New Day for Learning,” a Mott Foundation study of time, learning and after-school programs; “Expanding Learning Time In High Schools,” by the Center for American Progress; “On the Clock: Rethinking the Way Schools Use Time,” a monograph by the Education Sector; and a front-page New York Times article, “Failing Schools See a Solution in Longer Day.”

Back in 1992, I authored a Carnegie report titled “A Matter of Time: Risk and Opportunity in the Nonschool Hours.” That publication addressed the risks faced by young adolescents left unsupervised after school, and pointed out the untapped potential of out-of-school time for engaging young people in vital learning and developmental opportunities. Fifteen years later, as I read these new reports and survey the youth and education landscape, I see the same opportunities, but quite a different set of risks.

My worry now is that we might lengthen the school day and school year in very conventional and ineffective ways: by adding more of the kinds of education that, in too many cases, don’t work well during our current six-hour school day. I see danger in reflexively extending the school day, when what we really need is to imaginatively extend learning opportunities.

A big part of the problem is that many adults do not understand the nature of the task. When they talk about “time on task,” they think about having kids drilled for longer hours in phonics, memorizing more vocabulary lists and taking additional test prep classes. This doesn’t qualify as first-rate education during the regular school day, but it typifies instructional practices in too many of our public schools, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.

The real task is to engage young people in learning – all kinds of learning.

In fairness, all of the new reports cited above counsel against merely lengthening the school day. But I am waiting to see the evidence that policymakers, and the educational leaders who are being pressured by policymakers to obtain dramatic increases in student test scores, will have the wisdom and patience to listen to these caveats.

Policymakers should do some remedial reading of their own. They should start with the Education Sector’s “On the Clock,” which carefully reviews a body of compelling research about time and learning. The report says that school time falls into four categories: allocated school time, allocated class time, instructional time and academic learning time. Allocated school and class time include a lot of noninstructional activities, such as assemblies, recess, lunch breaks and announcements. It also notes that instructional time can be eroded by poor quality teaching and student inattention.

The report emphasizes that any extended-time proposal must focus on providing the right kind of time – that is, academic time during which youth are intensely participating in learning. The key, in other words, is active student engagement, not seat time. That’s also the task, for both young people and the adults who work with them.

Once we commit to this concept, we can determine who must be involved in its implementation. Youth-serving organizations have a long history of engaging young people in project-based learning and experiential education. At our best, we operate from a strengths-based perspective and know how to build on young people’s interests and knowledge. Because youth participation in our programs has always been voluntary, we have learned how to respond to the challenge of appealing to what children and teens want and need. The long-term nature of our work has often enabled us to promote the very work habits – such as planning, goal-setting, teamwork and project completion – that are central to success in school and in adulthood.

Youth workers have a lot to offer in this debate. But we’d better hurry; I see a fast-moving train here, and time may be running out.

Jane Quinn is assistant executive director for community schools at the Children’s Aid Society in New York City. Contact: