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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Education Opinion

Response: To Extend the School Day or Not?

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 08, 2017 16 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

Should the school day and/or year be lengthened?

Extending the school day and/or extending the school year are regularly discussed as potential changes for our schools. But do either really make sense and, if they do, under what circumstances?

Today’s contributors, Matthew A. Kraft, Barry Saide, Christine Brandt, Daniel R. Venables and Matt Renwick, share their answers to that question. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Matthew, Barry and Christine on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Though I believe the ideas of extending both have merit, I am also wary of just “throwing time” at challenges. I remember one time I was translating for a former colleague at a parent conference. They were discussing the less-than-stellar grade of a student. My colleague explained that he was available for after-school tutoring on most days. The student then interrupted the conversation and said, “But he tutors the same way he teaches, and I don’t understand what he’s talking about in class!”

Many of my students could benefit from extending learning time that includes space for advisory periods, peer tutoring, technology access, arts, music and other enrichment activities - ones that often get shortchanged in our regular schedule.

You might also be interested in The Best Resources On The Idea Of Extending The School Day & Year.

Response From Matthew A. Kraft

Matthew Kraft is an Assistant Professor of Education and Economics at Brown. His primary research focuses on efforts to improve educator and organizational effectiveness in K-12 urban public schools. Matt is also a member of the Mindset Scholars Network, which works to advance scientific understanding of learning mindsets in order to improve student outcomes and expand educational opportunity. You can follow him on Twitter at @MatthewAKraft:

What does the research say about extended learning time?

With each new release of international test-score rankings, policymakers sound the alarm about the declining competitiveness of U.S. students. Many also push for a sensible-sounding fix: Extend the amount of time students spend in school. Yet evaluating the merits of extended learning time is more difficult than it sounds. Here is what we know, and what we don’t know:

Do U.S. students spend less time in school than their international counterparts?

It depends. Making country-to-country comparisons can mask important variation within the U.S. where individual states determine requirements for instructional time. But according to data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), U.S. students spend, on average, 11 hours per week studying science, mathematics, and language arts. That places U.S. students in the upper tier, but still behind students from countries that commonly perform better than the U.S. on PISA tests such as Hong Kong-China (13.6 hrs) and Canada (12.9 hrs). At the same time, U.S. students spend more time in school than students in Finland (9.7 hrs) and Japan (10.8), though students from those countries also tend to outperform U.S. students on PISA tests.

Would making the school year longer increase student achievement?

Evidence suggests it would, but it’s complicated. Most research on the relationship between time in school and student achievement has come from descriptive case studies and covariate-controlled comparisons between schools with extended days or years and traditional schools. However, these comparisons provide limited information given that schools that have the resources and local support for extending learning time are likely to differ in systematic and unmeasured ways from schools that do not. In order to account for the effect of such unobserved differences, researchers have exploited arguably random variation in test-administration dates and school closings caused by inclement weather. Collectively, these studies provide strong evidence of gains in achievement on standardized tests as a result of additional days of instruction.

Would making school days longer increase student achievement?

Here the evidence is mixed. Evaluations of large-scale, extended-learning-time initiatives in Massachusetts and Miami-Dade County, Florida found that after three years, students in traditional public schools with extended days performed no better, on average, than students in similar schools with standard schedules. More favorable evidence of the impact of extended days on student achievement comes from recent research on urban charter schools that serve predominantly low-income students. Capitalizing on randomized lottery admissions processes, these studies found that many of the oversubscribed urban charter schools where students make large academic gains also have longer school days. However, these studies cannot disentangle the contribution of extended learning time at high-performing charters from other schooling practices such as high expectations, individualized tutoring, strict behavioral policies, and data-driven instruction.

Should we extend the school day and/or year in the Unites States?

We should encourage and empower schools to experiment with extended and alternative learning schedules, but we should be equally if not more focused on how well existing instructional time is being used. Schools need not be based on the seven-hour, 180-day calendar created over a century ago when a much larger fraction of our country was engaged in agriculture. However, simply mandating that schools add additional instructional time is unlikely to result in meaningful results if they are not properly resourced and prepared to use the additional time effectively.

There are many ways to increase learning time in schools without extending the day such as using effective pedagogical techniques to reduce transition time and eliminating school-wide announcements during class. Increasing U.S. students’ exposure to high-quality instruction must be at the core of our education reform efforts. Evidence suggests expanded learning time has the potential to advance us toward this goal, but that it is no silver bullet. Instead, it is likely one of several potentially promising reform efforts that, when applied in combination and implemented well, will help U.S. students compete successfully with their international peers.

Response From Christine Brandt

Christine Brandt is the principal at Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma, Wash., which received the 2016 Vision In Action: The ASCD Whole Child Award as well as being recognized as an AVID National Demonstration School for their school-wide implementation and common language used for teaching and learning of academic content and behavior. In 2015 Jason Lee Middle School was removed from the Washington State identified priority list of low performing schools under Christine’s leadership:

The impact of the summer slide as well as the additional supports needed for students who are or beginning to show signs of falling behind in grade level standard is real. If you are a high poverty student the effects of time away from school can be even more detrimental. Schools need to look at their needs and how to support students during the school year with extended hours as well as summer learning through community partnerships. These additional hours of support however needs to be different than traditional school for the learner.

Jason Lee Middle School runs a five week summer academy in partnership with local community organizations to offer students physical fitness and enrichment experiences as well as the needed academics of reading, writing and math to support our whole child approach of student learning. Our vision uses exercise as a vehicle for students success. Brain research shows exercise is best for cognitive brain function, critical thinking skills as well as supporting the executive function of the brain which has long been associated with ADHD which impacts student learning and is crucial for the developing students.

The community partnerships allow our students to experience real life problems through field studies in the Puget Sound, learn how to ride bicycles in an urban setting, as well as tutor and support students in classes during the five week program. Teachers identify standards students need support in and focus on filling the gaps of learning to help them be prepared for the next school year. The community partnerships also extend into the school year as they support students during the school day with academic coaching as well as extended school hours with enrichment opportunities and tutoring support. The relationships that are built with the students and the community partners as well as the school allows students to see the different opportunities our community has for students to experience learning and continue to be involved in as they become young adults.

We have seen the impact on our students academically already with this approach to extended learning. Last year Jason Lee Middle School was removed from the Washington state priority list of low performing schools for the state standardized test. Through community partnerships you can build innovative ways to support students by extending the day or school year and impact student learning.

Response From Barry Saide

Barry Saide is in his first year as Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction in Frelinghuysen Township, in Frelinghuysen, N.J. Prior to his new role, Barry was an elementary school teacher for fifteen years, thirteen of them in Bernards Township, N.J. He is a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader, and a member of the NJASCD Executive Board. Connect with Barry on his website barrysaide.weebly.com, or via Twitter @barrykid1:

Asking if the school day should be extended, or the year lengthened, presupposes that as teachers we either are not maximizing the time we have to educate students, or even if we are maximizing every minute, there isn’t enough time to educate students at a high level within the demands of the existing educational system. Both suppositions may be correct, but a longer day or school year (or both) won’t promote deeper, transformative learning in classrooms if we’re not providing deeper, more meaningful learning opportunities for teachers and students. By expecting more but doing less, it’s no different than going to the gym, doing the exercises wrong, then saying if we stay at the gym longer to spend more time doing the exercises wrong, we’ll grow bigger, faster, and stronger.

So, how do we promote stronger educational opportunities that promote life-long learning for students and teachers without extending the school day or year? It starts with educational vision. We need to have one, and it needs to be created and shared by all stakeholders. That means students, teachers, administrators, the board, and the community come to consensus on what teaching, learning, and leading looks, sounds, and feels like. Our focus needs to be on what we know is best for students, and what is best for the teachers who will work with students. This means taking the time to know our teaching staff’s strengths, and giving them opportunities to turnkey those pedagogical strengths to their peers. It also means providing opportunities for high quality professional development for staff that directly relates to the district’s mission, and teacher and student needs. The building each teacher works in should be a learning lab where teachers are celebrated for taking risks and failing forward as they implement new practices. Adult learning shouldn’t be any more fearful than student learning should be.

As administrators, we need to make sure we stay away from the threatening virus called ‘over-initiating our staff’. Stay small in learning targets and invest heavily in them. Allow for all involved to understand, learn, and grow over time. When we try to provide a blueprint to solve everything that may ail our existing educational system, we often create something that looks great on paper, but will not transition to reality. There is no miracle pill. No one ever learned to make dessert by starting with making crème bruleé. Bake cookies first. After you go to the gym.

Response From Daniel R. Venables

Daniel R. Venables is Founding Director of the Center for Authentic PLCs and author of How Teachers Can Turn Data Into Action (ASCD, 2014), The Practice of Authentic PLCs: A Guide to Effective Teacher Teams (Corwin, 2011), and Facilitating Authentic PLCs: The Human Side of Leading Teacher Teams (ASCD, forthcoming). He can be contacted at dvenables@authenticplcs.com:

My short answer to this is NO. I predicate this response on the notion that low-performing schools are generally the context in which this debate arises. If schools are low-performing or outright failing, it makes no sense to me to increase the time kids are in these failing schools. More of a bad thing is not a good thing.

That said, we are at a point in American education where most would agree that kids do not learn at the same pace and at the same time. Despite this reality, we insist on grouping them by age and moving them along as a herd by age. It follows corollarily that there will always be a number of kids who will fall behind and, so long as their will is sustained, continually try to play catch-up.

For me, the only convincing case for an extended school day would be in a model where the day is extended say, 25 percent, and during that time (which may happen before school and not necessarily after school) students get the support and remediation they need to stay with their classmates. In this model learning would be highly personalized, probably take advantage of the good interactive tech tools that are becoming more mainstream in education, and give kids who need to move at a pace more slowly than their peers an opportunity to do so with success and without stigma.

For those kids who are on or above grade level, the same time could be used for enrichment (for example, math teams, chess club, robotics, Poetry Society, Journalism class). Or, maybe kids who are on or above grade level simply leave school earlier. This would free up a certain percentage of the faculty to have a place in the school day for collaborative teams to meet. Exactly how that would be sliced up is not clear but with a focus on personalized learning and a little creativity by the schools leadership, good things could happen in that 25 percent.

I can think of no circumstances in which the school year ought to be extended. But I would love to hear readers’ thoughts.

Response From Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an elementary school principal in Mineral Point, Wisconsin and author of multiple books, including 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (ASCD, 2015). Learn more about Matt on his website, mattrenwick.com, and by following him on Twitter @ReadByExample:

Whether the school day or year should be lengthened depends on the context of each community where students live and learn. But before educators would even consider this option, they should first look at the instructional practices currently being employed in classrooms. It would be wise to start assessing the level of instruction in a school and asking a series of questions, such as:

  • Is every teacher facilitating a learning environment that encourages students to take risks, learn from others, and meet high academic expectations?

  • What types of questions are we asking during instruction: Those that inhibit or promote thinking?

  • Is voice and choice a large part of daily learning activities? For example, are students able to select texts they want to read, and respond to their reading in authentic ways?

  • Are students offered more time and additional support from expert teachers if they fall behind?

  • Does school leadership protect instructional time from nonacademic distractions, communicate effectively with families and the community, and make themselves visible in everyday activities?

If the answers are “yes” to the previous questions, then extending the school day or year might make sense. Without assessing how good the instruction is within a school, we risk forcing students to spend more time in a school that, quite frankly, is not performing at an acceptable level. Why would we give kids more of what they don’t need? And here’s the thing: If a school is able to answer yes to the questions previously listed, chances are high that there may not be a need to extend the school day or year in the first place.

If lengthening the school day or year is a priority, then I say extend it with learning activities in which kids want to attend. For example, offer enrichment courses that might otherwise not be available for students during the school day or in their lives outside of school. In my prior school, teachers facilitated experiential activities such as fishing, computer club, and gardening. Another good use for additional instructional time is a study center or peer tutoring. Students helping students learn is an effective way to reduce competition, honor each individual’s own learning progression, and fill in a gap of support not always available at home.

Thanks to Matthew, Barry, Christine, Daniel and Matt for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.