Beginning this school year, 35 schools in five states — Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee — will take part in a new program intended to increase student achievement by adding up to 300 hours of additional learning time to the school year.
These schools, which together enroll about 17,500 students, are part of a program coordinated by the National Center of Time and Learning (NCTL), a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, as well as by the Ford Foundation and state education officials. Participation will be broadened after the first year, with an additional 40 schools enrolling about 20,000 students scheduled to join the effort in the second and third years.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the average school year in the U.S. lasts 180 days, with 6.6 hours in the average school day. However, many U.S. schools have experimented with expanded learning time (ELT) since the 1970s, by incorporating a longer school day or longer school year. Currently, at least 1,000 U.S. schools incorporate ELT into their instructional program, according to a 2010-2011 survey conducted by NCTL.
For youth workers and after-school providers, as well as educators and school administrators, the new program will provide an opportunity to observe the effects of increased learning time on student achievement. In addition, it will provide the opportunity to study innovative programs and practices that can be adapted in contexts beyond that of the lengthened school day and school year.
Does Expanded Learning Time Work?
It’s logical to assume that increasing the length of the school day and/or the school year will result in improved achievement: After all, when you spend more effort and time working on something, you do generally get better at it.
However, academic gains are not guaranteed. A 2012 report commissioned by the Wallace Foundation revealed that not all ELT programs result in improved student achievement, and in many cases it was difficult to isolate the influence of ELT on student achievement from other innovations (for instance, a change in curriculum, or the addition of a program intended to increase student motivation) implemented at the same time.
The Wallace Foundation report, a systematic review of the evidence from more than 80 evaluation studies of ELT programs, also noted that the evidence base to evaluate ELT is weak because only a few studies were rigorous and experimental, while many were based on small samples or short time periods, or failed to use control or comparison groups.
Despite this caution, the Wallace report found that most ELT programs were associated with at least some improved student outcomes. For both extended school day (ESD) and extended school year (ESY) programs, the quality and implementation of the program were key factors for success. In addition, the Wallace report noted that ESY programs in particular could be expensive and difficult to implement. Further, the report noted, ESY programs that did not have the support of key stakeholders — including parents, teachers, and students — were less likely to be successful.
Characteristics of Successful Expanded Learning Programs
To identify the characteristics of successful ELT programs, the National Center for Time and Learning (NCTL) studied 30 schools with successful ELT programs: Each school served a substantial number of low-income students (at least 60 percent eligible for free or reduced lunch); offered at least 10 more school days per year, or at least one hour per day, as compared to surrounding schools; and produced better academic results than their district average (at least 5 percentage points higher on state math or English tests).
The NCTL found eight practices typical of these successful ELT schools, reinforcing the conclusion of the Wallace Foundation report that additional school time is not necessarily sufficient to improve achievement — it matters that you do something useful with that time. All the practices are based on the effective use of time, which is considered a valuable and scarce resource, even with the lengthened school day or year.
The first set of practices includes using all available time effectively, prioritizing the use of time to meet focused learning goals and individualizing instruction to meet the needs of each student.
The second group of practices is focused on using school time to help students thrive in school and beyond. These practices include building a school culture of accountability and high expectations, providing a well-rounded education, and preparing students to pursue careers or higher education after they graduate.
The third group of practices focuses on improving teacher effectiveness, by investing time in efforts to continuously improve instruction, and collecting and analyzing data on student performance and using this information to improve teaching.
The NCTL report notes that the practices characteristic of ELT schools can also be implemented without extending the school day or school year, and that adding school time often acts as a catalyst to other reforms. As the study authors, Claire Kaplan and Roy Chan, noted, “The power of time is synergized by productive investments in human capital — involving the development of outstanding leaders and teachers, the effective application of data, and the formation of a constructive school culture focused on high expectations and mutual accountability.”
The practices noted as effective for ELT schools can also be implemented in after-school programs and other youth activities as well. In fact, many of the specific services provided by successful ELT schools, such as the after-school homework help program at Golder College Prep in Chicago, or the summer orientation program for incoming freshmen provided by YES Prep North Central in Houston, could also be provided by youth-serving organizations unaffiliated with any particular school.
Eight Practices of Successful, Expanded-Time Schools
The National Center on Time & Learning identified eight practices, grouped into three major categories, which are commonly practiced in successful expanded-time schools. The same practices can be applied in in after-school and enrichment programs provided by independent organizations.
• Optimize Time for Student Learning
• Make Every Minute Count
• Prioritize Time According to Focused Learning Goal
• Individualize Learning Time and Instruction Based on Student Needs
• Use Time to Help Students Thrive in School and Beyond
• Use Time to Build a School Culture of High Expectations and Mutual Accountability
• Use Time to Provide a Well-Rounded Education
• Use Time to Prepare Students for College and Career
• Dedicate Time to Improve Teacher Effectiveness
• Use Time to Continuously Strengthen Instruction
• Use Time to Relentlessly Assess, Analyze, and Respond to Student Data