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Do Kids Need More School?

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By Francesca Duffy

This past Monday, panelists at a K-12 education forum on extended-learning time discussed factors that need to be considered when lengthening the school day or school year, and what still needs to be done in terms of measuring the effectiveness of extended-learning programs on student achievement.

Hosted by The Wallace Foundation, the afternoon panel marked the first day of a two-day forum held in Washington, called "Reimagining the School Day." The goal of the forum was to examine the ways in which the nation’s schools can offer students additional learning opportunities inside as well as outside of the traditional six-hour, 180-day school year.

M. Christine DeVita, president of The Wallace Foundation, noted in her keynote speech that shrinking budgets are forcing some schools to shorten the school day or year, thus resulting in less instructional time for students and minimal opportunity to improve achievement outcomes. DeVita shared these grim facts to emphasize the need to document and learn from extended-learning programs and the effects they have on student outcomes.

During the panel discussion, Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at the education think tank Education Sector, said that some 1,500-2,000 schools already have some sort of extended-learning program in place. However, she added, there are no isolated interventions that can be studied or tracked.

"You can’t even go to the U.S. Department of Education’s website to see what schools are doing this," said Silva, who added that a national database needs to be created so that in five years schools can look back at this data and see if these programs are working.

Silva also made note of the strong federal push to turn around low-performing schools in the bottom fifth percentile of the country. However, she cautioned, implementing extended-learning programs in these schools will not necessarily mean improved academic outcomes if students aren’t currently receiving high-quality instruction during normal school hours. "You have to be careful with low-performing schools—you can’t just add more time if it’s just going to be more of the same thing that they get during the school day," said Silva.

Sue Bodilly, the former executive director of RAND Education, added that while many school districts have initiated extended-learning programs because of concerns about their test scores, these initiatives aren’t just about raising scores. "It’s also about the creativity and behavioral skills learned during this time that could pay off dividends for the students," said Bodilly.

The 'Fifth Quarter'

One school district that has an extended-learning program in place is Cincinnati Public Schools. Mary Ronan, the superintendent, explained that the district needed to extend the school year by one month because of its "horrible test scores." CPS' non-mandatory program, called the "Fifth Quarter," takes place in the month of June. Students are given academic lessons in the morning and participate in academic-enrichment activities in the afternoon.

Ronan explained that the program works in partnership with several community groups, including the YMCA, that help to offer their students an engaging learning experience. She also added that the "acceleration" piece of the extended-learning curriculum has been particularly appealing to parents. Instead of focusing on remediation, this extra month of school is meant to help transition students to the next grade.

Ronan also said that placing this additional learning time in the summer seems to work better for students and teachers than if they had to stay in school for an extra hour every day during the traditional year. "I think kids and teachers are more likely to be tired at the end of the school day," she said.

The panelists briefly noted that there is still a strong need to organize professional development for teachers coming into these programs in order to ensure that the extra time is being structured productively, and so that teacher unions can see the value behind the additional time added on to the school day or year.

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