National Center on Time and Learning Director Talks ELT

By Nora Fleming — May 20, 2011 8 min read
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In continuing the discussion on expanded learning time (ELT) and the Wallace Foundation forum, I thought I’d ask Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning, to weigh in. Davis, who has served in a number of notable federal and state positions in education, was one of the founders of Massachusetts 2020, an organization that worked with the Massachusetts Department of Education to implement a statewide expanded learning time initiative in 2005, the first of its kind in the country.

The initiative has helped Massachusetts’ school districts expand learning time in 19 underperforming, low-income schools in the state that together serve 10,500 students. Since implementation, the schools have reported significant gains in academic progress and proficiency, teacher satisfaction, and general student behavior, as detailed in the NCTL’s 2010 Progress Report. Clarence Edwards Middle School in Boston and Kuss Middle School in Fall River, Mass., for example, progressed from being two of the lowest-performing schools in the state to exceeding state proficiency averages.

Davis, who was also a guest speaker at the Wallace event this week, became the president of NCTL when the organization formed in 2007, and works in ELT on a national scale, helping states, districts, and community organizations and OST providers around the country implement ELT initiatives in their schools and evaluating what models and practices seem to have the most notable impacts. This July, NCTL and the Education Commission of the States plan to release a report assessing expanded learning time trends on the federal, state, and district levels.

Here’s what Davis had to say about lessons learned thus far with schools using expanded learning time models, suggestions for districts who are interested in ELT, and notable efforts underway around the country to redesign schools’ use of time.

Q.: What makes expanded learning time schools different from schools that provide extended learning opportunities? How is the additional time for enrichment and other activities provided for in many expanded learning time schools different from high-quality after-school programs?

A.: The expanded learning time (ELT) model is unique and quite different from traditional after-school programming. In addition to serving all students in the school, the ELT model NCTL promotes reforms the entire school day and year, improving and enriching education beyond just the “extended time” that is being added. The ELT model is designed to not only provide expanded educational opportunities for students, but also more time for teachers to spend with students and in learning communities together in order to review student progress and improve instructional practices. After-school programs are designed to provide children enhanced learning and enrichment programming when school is not in session and often also help parents by ensuring children are in safe places while they work.

I believe both models are needed in America today. However, since disadvantaged students typically experience significant achievement gaps, they require more time with high quality educators if they are going to catch up and become college and career ready by the end of high school.

Q.: Why is 300 hours the magic number, or rather, how do we know this amount of time is sufficient for turning around underperforming schools?

A.: What NCTL knows from our review of initiatives across the country is that a number of districts that have just " tacked on” a one-hour remediation period at the end of the day have seen minimal impact. We believe that expanding time in a significant way should mean a true school “redesign.” We find that of the schools that transition from a traditional schedule to an expanded schedule, the most successful are those that carefully create a new school plan and schedule that better addresses the needs of students and teachers. They step back and ask themselves “what do our children need to succeed and how do we create a schedule that best meets those needs?”

In our 2005 report, Time for a Change, we documented several schools—both charter and district—that had successfully added time. We found that they had each added a significant amount of time, with KIPP schools adding a high of roughly 60% more time and the other schools, on average, adding closer to 25-30% more time, or about 300 hours.

With significant additional time, schools are also able not only to strengthen academics, but to offer a well-rounded education, often including community partners who provide new programming in the arts and music, internships and project-based approaches to learning. Adding at least 300 hours to the standard school schedule is helping to eliminate the frustrating tradeoffs schools face between literacy or art (and other subjects that engage students more fully in school), science or social studies, breadth or depth. But the real question is: What is the total amount of time necessary to accelerate students in high-poverty communities to proficiency and beyond while also providing opportunities for a well-rounded education?

Q.: While there is no “one size fits all” approach with expanded time models, how can districts (and states) ensure the time they add will be productive and schools accountable for using the time effectively?

A.: Like any school reform, strong implementation of expanded time is essential for success. In Massachusetts, the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education put in place “performance agreements” for all the schools participating in the Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time Initiative. These agreements outline educational goals schools are expected to meet within three years or else risk the withdrawal of funding. The ELT Initiative is also a competitive grant, so schools have to put together strong plans in order to receive funding in the first place. Similarly, at the federal level, the Time for Innovation Matters in Education (TIME) Act is a competitive program and requires grantees to meet performance targets to remain eligible for funding.

When we work with state and district leaders across the U.S., we often encourage leaders to consider adding significantly more learning time for all students by rethinking how the entire day and year are structured to improve student achievement, increase student engagement, and provide teachers with time for collaboration and professional development. Schools should capitalize on increased learning time by using data to individualize instruction, monitor progress, and provide tiered support to students based on needs.

We ask school leaders to make every minute count through the relentless use of data, a school-wide effort to strengthen instruction, and an intense focus on a small number of key performance and instructional goals. Additionally, we suggest for leaders be creative about staffing and scheduling, keeping in mind that strategies such as the use of technology and utilizing community partners can bring new resources and meaningful new experiences to students at reasonable cost.

Q.: What are some innovative examples you’ve seen (or heard about) for how expanded time can be used to (improve) school quality and student performance? (nationwide)

A.: Across the country, education leaders are embracing the expansion of the school schedule to improve school quality and student performance. The KIPP network of schools has identified more time as one of their “five pillars” and the entire network utilizes an extended school day, week and year. Some of the most successful district and charter schools across the country serving high-poverty students consider more time a core design element, Brooklyn Generation School and An Achievable Dream Academy in Virginia , as well as the charter networks, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, Yes Prep, and Aspire Public Schools, all rely on a school calendar that extends well beyond the conventional one of 180 six-and-a-half hour days.

Q.: Other than the federal legislation currently on the table, what other efforts would you like to see on federal, state, and local levels in implementing school redesign with expanded time?

A.: There has been tremendous momentum over the last several years to expand the number of schools with more learning time. Low performing schools across the U.S. are using School Improvement Grants (SIG) to “increase learning time.” Due to the ARRA timelines, these schools and very little time to plan for such important reforms and little guidance on the “increased learning time” component. Just last week, Sen. Kay Hagen (D-N.C.) introduced the STAR Act to strengthen the current federal school turnaround models. This bill explicitly calls for school using the Turnaround and Transformation models to add 300 hours of learning time and provides for a pre-implementation planning period.

The expansion of charter schools being driven by new state laws and federal support through the Innovation Fund and charter grant programs will also lead to more expanded-time schools across the U.S. The Race to the Top states are all looking at how they can best improve their lagging schools and more time is one of the elements being implemented. An important Congressional proposal, the TIME Act was introduced recently with bipartisan support and will promote initiatives in states and districts to target low performing schools with more time. President Obama and Sen.Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, have proposed budgets over the last several years calling for broadening the use of the $1.16 billion 21st Century Community Learning Center program to allow communities to expand school time in addition to having voluntary after-school and summer programs. We are also seeing creativity at the district and school levels where new staffing and scheduling models are being created to ensure students have the time they need to succeed.

Photos, top to bottom: A. C. Whelan Elementary School students work on a science project in Revere, Mass. (Don West); Garfield Middle School teacher works with a student in Revere, Mass. (John Gillooly); Clarence R. Edwards Middle School students perform in Boston.(John Gillooly); Garfield Middle School teachers sit in a planning meeting in Revere, Mass. (Don West)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Beyond School blog.