School & District Management

Consensus on Learning Time Builds

Interest in Expanding Hours for Students to Master Academic, Social, and Workplace Skills Is Mounting
By Catherine Gewertz — September 22, 2008 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 15 min read
Nine-year-olds Deanna Dow, middle,Yarei Sanchez, left, and Krysalli Bloomfield, right, stretch before playing soccer at the UFT Charter School in Brooklyn on Sept. 17.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Corrected: The name of Bela P. Shah, a senior program associate for after-school initiatives at the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

Includes updates and/or revisions.

Under enormous pressure to prepare students for a successful future—and fearful that standard school hours don’t offer enough time to do so—educators, policymakers, and community activists are adding more learning time to children’s lives.

“This issue is hot right now,” said Bela P. Shah, a senior program associate for after-school initiatives at the National League of Cities’ Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. “There’s a real understanding that we have to do more, and that everyone has to take responsibility for it.”

Twenty-five years ago, the still-resonant report A Nation at Risk urged schools to add more time—an hour to the usual six-hour day and 20 to 40 days to the typical 180-day year—to ward off a “rising tide of mediocrity” in American education. Today, in city agencies and school district offices, at statehouses and on the national stage, leaders are engaged in a renewed effort to do just that.

See Also

A Nation at Risk: 25 Years Later

For the collected stories and online features in this series, see A Nation at Risk: 25 Years Later.

“Everywhere I go, people are talking about this now,” said An-Me Chung, a program officer for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which has financed school-community partnerships and after-school programs since the 1930s. The Flint, Mich.-based philanthropy has also taken a leading role in convening scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to rethink the role time should play in learning.

“They’re stepping back and taking a much more holistic approach than they did even eight years ago,” Ms. Chung said of those who have been discussing expanded learning. “They realize we’ve got to think about time and learning in more than just a piecemeal way.”

Hundreds of Initiatives

Cassie Fournier, 17, a senior at Franklin High School in Franklin, N.H., reads to Haven Nadeau, 4, at the school’s day-care center. Under the state’s Extended Learning Opportunity pilot program for high school students, Ms. Fournier is earning credit in child development and child psychology for the time she spends working with the children.

The idea of finding more time for learning has generated a hotbed of activity nationwide. A July study for the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank, found that more than 300 initiatives to extend learning time were launched between 1991 and 2007 in high-poverty and high-minority schools in 30 states. A compilation of extended-day activity at the state level by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States found more than 50 efforts since 2000.

Adding learning time takes many forms. It can mean freeing students from the clock by letting them complete assignments on a computer, in their pajamas, at 2 a.m., or letting them take five years to finish high school, as the Boston district allows. It can mean forging better links between children’s schools and the many learning experiences in their cities, as Providence, R.I., has done, by building “afterzones” of networked after-school programs for its middle-schoolers, from sports and fashion design to college guidance counseling, and providing the wheels to get them there.

Most often, retooling time means extending the school day or school year to accommodate the burgeoning list of skills and areas of knowledge students need to thrive as adults.

‘Only Way to Go’

Learning Time and International Rankings

Results from the Program for International Student Assessment of 15-year-olds in mathematics in 2003 show the relationship between time and scores is complex. Some nations that fared worse than the U.S. offered more hours per year.


NOTE: “Instructional hours per year” refers to the number of hours that students participate in a school-based education program. It does not include homework, tutoring, or other study before or after school.
SOURCE: Education Sector

At Grove Patterson Academy, a regular public K-8 school in Toledo, Ohio, an eight-hour day and a 192-day year afford time for all 400 children to have 90 minutes of daily, uninterrupted reading, to study Spanish or German, to explore music and art, to engage in sports, and to work with mathematics specialists.

The extra time—the equivalent of 49 more days in the year—makes possible an interdisciplinary-learning approach that Principal Gretchen E. Bueter calls invaluable. Children do math problems in German, boost their Spanish and geography skills in social studies class, and learn graphing and numeric value in music. Teachers have daily planning time together to coordinate coursework across the curriculum.

“I feel this is the only way to go,” Ms. Bueter said. “This is a better way of preparing children to go out there and be ready for whatever they do.”

Among other high-profile efforts to extend learning time:

• New York City and its teachers’ union added 37.5 minutes a day to the first four days of the week so teachers can tutor underperforming students in small groups.

Hours of School in Selected Districts

While the average student spends 1,161 hours a year in school, individual districts can still vary significantly in the amount of time students are in school. A 2006 study found that Chicago students spent the equivalent of eight weeks less time in school than the national average.


SOURCE: Center for American Progress

• Eight communities are seeking grants from the Mott Foundation to implement a new form of expanded learning that envisions a “seamless learning experience” obtained inside and outside the schoolhouse, and supported by a web of community services.

• In Massachusetts, a widely watched, 3-year-old initiative to expand learning time gives districts about $1,300 per pupil to add 30 percent more time to the school year. Leaders of the program said they are advising at least seven other states interested in doing something similar.

“People see that we can’t consistently achieve our goals inside the usual time frame,” said Chris Gabrieli, the co-chairman of the National Center on Time and Learning, which advises the 26 schools implementing the Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time initiative in 2008-09. “We’re way short of the mark.” (The Boston-based center is supported in part by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which provided a grant for Education Week’s anniversary coverage of A Nation at Risk.)

With backing from both national teachers’ unions, U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., introduced legislation last month that would provide federal funding for districts or schools wishing to follow the Massachusetts example. Legislation sponsored last fall by U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., contains similar ideas.

The time issue has even worked its way into the presidential race. The platform of the Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, calls for high-quality summer and after-school programs. Two coalitions that formed to keep education issues visible in the 2008 race list extended learning time among their priorities.

This past summer, the National Center for Summer Learning at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore launched a $5.2 million public-policy campaign to promote funding for summer programs, especially for children whose families cannot provide the array of educational experiences children of wealthier parents enjoy.

The campaign has been publicizing findings by Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander, who traces two-thirds of the achievement gap between students of less-advantaged and more-affluent backgrounds to summer learning loss by poorer children. It also cites research that suggests children with few good summer-activity options have more health problems, such as obesity and diabetes.

Ron Fairchild, the executive director of the center, believes that the rush of activity on the local, state, and national levels shows that the importance of out-of-school time to children’s learning is finally getting the recognition it deserves.

“We’re starting to see a real tipping point on this issue,” he told a group of advocates who gathered in Washington on July 10 to lobby Congress for funding.

On-and-Off Debate

Numbers have no doubt helped tip the debate. The Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers found that in 2006, 21 states required a school day of less than five hours or had no requirement. Only three states mandated school years longer than 180 days.

Sampler of 'Time' Initiatives, 2008

• A group of Chicago school district department heads begins meeting this month to design a comprehensive approach to providing access for high school students to extended-day and after-school opportunities, reflecting Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan’s state support for such access in all high schools.

• The After-School Corp., based in New York City, begins a three-year demonstration project this month to add 30 percent more time to the day at 11 schools, in partnership with the city’s department of youth and community services, and local community-based organizations.

District of Columbia Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee launched a 14-week “Saturday Scholars” program in January, inviting 7,500 students in grades 3-6 to receive tutoring in preparation for spring tests. This fall, the school district is introducing an extra “power hour” in most elementary and middle schools for work on academic skills, and added extracurricular and extended-learning coordinators in every high school.

• The state-run Recovery School District this school year added 4.75 hours each week in New Orleans schools struggling to come back after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The change means those schools have 19.5 percent more instructional minutes than required by the state of Louisiana.

• Eight more schools in Massachusetts join the Expanded Learning Time initiative this school year, bringing the total to 26 schools that have added at least 30 percent more time to their schedules. The program began with 10 schools in 2006.

• The fall, with a $1 million grant from the Nellie Mae Educational Foundation, four New Hampshire schools begin a pilot test of an extended-learning-time model that allows high school students to learn in “rigorous and relevant real-world settings.” The pilot is intended to serve as a model for use by all high schools nationwide.

• Senate Bill 3431, which Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced in August, would provide grants to partnerships that wish to expand learning time in schools by at least 30 percent.

• The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, a coalition of prominent educators and activists, in June urges policymakers to adopt their recommendations, which include high-quality extended-day and out-of-school-time programs.

SOURCE: Education Week

Education Resource Strategies, a Watertown, Mass.-based nonprofit consulting firm, studied in 2006 how many hours per year students spent in school in 10 urban districts. The results varied from 914 in Chicago to 1,274 in Houston. And that’s what researchers call “allocated school time,” which includes lunch, passing periods between classes, and the like. Not all allocated school time is class time, and even less is high-quality instructional time, experts say.

Urban schoolchildren didn’t always spend so little time in class. Studies show that in the mid-1800s, some big cities kept schools open more than 250 days a year. New York City’s schools were open year-round, with only a three-week break in August. But by the turn of the 20th century, the urban school year grew shorter as middle-class parents began to insist on vacation time, while rural school calendars, often interrupted by farming demands and shortened by lack of funding, grew longer. By the middle of the 20th century, most U.S. schools had settled into the late-summer-to-late-spring standard, with a solid block of summer vacation.

In A Nation at Risk, the National Commission on Excellence in Education, formed by then-U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, said improving American education would require higher expectations, better teaching, and better curricula. But it would also take “significantly more time,” the commission said, used more effectively.

Adding more school time has been discussed and tried intermittently since the report’s release in 1983. “Prisoners of Time,” a 1994 report by another federal panel, reiterated calls for a longer school day and year, saying time is the “unacknowledged design flaw” in American education, and must support learning, not limit it.

But the idea has taken hold with particular fervor in the past decade, driven in large part by the academic-standards movement, which has sought to define what students should know, and heightened attention to achievement gaps between students of different races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, which showed how far many children still had to go.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in January 2002, added urgency to the rethinking of time, observers say, by dangling consequences over schools that don’t progress briskly enough. The globalizing economy, meanwhile, popularized the idea that to thrive, young people must master not only core academics, but also a set of “21st-century skills” such as critical thinking and teamwork.

Also fueling the rethinking of time was the expansion of federally funded 21st Century Community Learning Centers, which seek to use after-school time for a blend of academics and enrichment. The program grew from $40 million annually in 1998 to a $1 billion a year by 2002, and has retained support near that level ever since, despite attempts by President Bush to cut it.

Time in Charter Schools

The rise of charter schools also has given educators something to think about. Two-thirds of those public schools use their freedom from most regulations to adopt longer days or longer years, according to the Center for Education Reform, a Washington group that supports and tracks charters and other forms of school choice.

Experts often point to schools run by the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, as an example of what more time can do. KIPP’s overwhelmingly low-income students have made strong gains in a rigorous, college-preparatory program that spans 8 ½ hours a day, every other Saturday, and three weeks of the summer.

The push to add more time to learning also has accelerated a cross-fertilization of the education, youth-development, and after-school worlds. Recreation and job-training programs often add academic help, for instance. More schools are seeking to replicate for children of low-income families the rich array of learning experiences—from art class to internships—that better-off children receive outside the school walls.

Accumulated Effects of Summer Learning Loss

Researcher Karl Alexander and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University have tracked the achievement trajectories of more than 700 Baltimore schoolchildren who started 1st grade in 1982. They found that learning gaps between low-income children and their middle-income peers widened during the summer months because of differences in learning opportunities.


SOURCE: Center for Summer Learning, Johns Hopkins University

“Why should we think about the learning day as ending at the school door?” said Milton Goldberg, who was the executive director of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, directed the panel that produced the “Prisoners of Time” report, and remains a leader in the movement to rethink learning time.

“People aren’t just talking about having more learning time,” he said. “They’re talking about a fundamentally different conception of when and where kids learn.”

The C.S. Mott Foundation convened leaders of the education and after-school worlds in 2005 to help define that new conception of learning.

In a 2007 report, “A New Day for Learning,” the Mott panel urged erasing the distinction between school and after-school, and creating a “seamless” experience that would impart academic, cultural, and civic learning, along with such skills as critical thinking and teamwork. It would extend beyond the schoolhouse, with “no final bell.” That approach requires intense, communitywide collaboration, the report said, and “a total rethinking of purposes, practices, and personnel.”

The foundation has invited eight school district-community partnerships to apply for grants to build learning systems that embody those principles. Winners are expected to be announced this fall.

Most of the recent expanded-time efforts share some core beliefs. One is that children need more time and opportunity to learn what they need to know. Another is that more time must mean new modes of learning—not just longer vocabulary lists. The initiatives also seem to acknowledge that schools can’t do it alone. Educators have long linked up with community groups to extend and enrich students’ learning, as evidenced by the century-old Community Schools movement. But those connections are cropping up far more often in schools not formally a part of that coalition.

Even with those tenets in common, though, the initiatives vary in philosophy and approach.

One type operates as an academic intervention for the lowest-performing students. In the Miami-Dade County, Fla., district’s former School Improvement Zone, for instance, struggling schools operated on a longer day and year, and the extra time was dedicated exclusively to core academic subjects.

Beyond Allocated Time

Since the 1970s, researchers have pointed out a difference between the amount of time that schools allocate for learning, the amount of time during which students are engaged in learning, and actual learning time. That’s why experts say just doubling the amount of time that students spend in school might not prove fruitful if the added time is not well used and students are less engaged during the allocated time.


SOURCE: American Educational Research Association

Another type operates as a blend of academics and enrichment, with the primary vision of building well-rounded adults by offering arts, sports, cultural and relational experiences, vocational training, and academic help. Such programs are commonly offered by community groups, alone or in partnership with schools, and may occur during or after the typical school day.

Other extended-time efforts, such as the Massachusetts initiative, are fundamental school redesigns that put the school district squarely in charge of improving performance by aligning the enrichment and academic components. Unlike in some programs, all children in the school must participate.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that if teachers have an integral role in shaping the additional learning time, both students and teachers can be richly rewarded. Students would have time to approach learning differently—in small groups, for instance, or in a more hands-on way—and teachers would build stronger skills and experience more job satisfaction.

“It’s not just someone saying, ‘We’re going to add time to the day, and you’re going to have to work it,’?” Ms. Weingarten said. “It can be a hugely professional and collegial practice that builds their capacity and is a big morale booster.”

Staggering Schedules

Extending time doesn’t necessarily mean all teachers would work longer hours, she added. At a New York charter middle school run jointly by the city and the United Federation of Teachers, the local AFT affiliate, the additional hours are covered on a staggered schedule, she said.

Adding time can be expensive and politically tricky, said Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst for the Washington-based think tank Education Sector. She examined the additional-time issue in a 2007 paper, “On the Clock.” (The study was underwritten by the Broad Foundation.)

A longer school year can run into resistance from certain business interests, such as the amusement-park industry, that employ many teenagers and depend on tourism for revenue, Ms. Silva said, and from middle-class parents who seek more time with their children and resent the disruption to vacations.

A longer day tends to draw less opposition, she said, although high school athletics departments often consider it a problem because it cuts into traditional practice times.

Mr. Gabrieli of the National Center on Time and Learning said schools in the Massachusetts initiative have found a longer day to be more cost-efficient than a longer year.

The Impact of Instructional Time

In a 2003 study, researchers Douglas Clark of Arizona State University and Marcia C. Linn of the University of California, Berkeley, tested whether condensing lessons in a 12-week, computer-enhanced program for teaching middle schoolers about thermodynamics would have a negative impact on student learning. Their results show that students fared just as well on multiple-choice tests when learning time was reduced. But their conceptual understanding, as measured by their performance on written questions, dropped dramatically.


SOURCE: The Journal of the Learning Sciences

Cost is “absolutely the first thing that comes up” when policymakers consider adding time, Ms. Silva said.

Another 2008 study for the Center for American Progress, also financed by the Broad Foundation, found that the annual cost of adding 30 percent more time to a school schedule ranged from $287 to $720 per pupil, depending on whether the extra time was staffed with paraprofessionals or with certified employees on a salaried basis. It could be lower if current staffing is reallocated or a stipend system is used, the study says, and higher if newly hired certified staff members are used.

Karen Hawley Miles, the paper’s co-author and the executive director of Education Resource Strategies, said schools typically find that they have to spend about 16 percent more to boost time by 30 percent.

One of the concerns sparked by the movement to add time is that it risks simply being an extension of ineffective instruction.

“There are some principals and superintendents who think that more time on task means more of what is already happening,” said Lucy N. Friedman, the president of The After-School Corp., or TASC, a nonprofit group in New York City that is managing a new initiative this year to expand time by 30 percent in 11 schools there. “We think kids need a much broader approach to learning.”

Youth Workers’ Role

Some leaders in the after-school sector worry that their deep expertise in youth development will be left behind in the accelerating dialogue about extended time, at a great cost to children.

“Youth workers have a lot to offer in this current debate. But we’d better hurry—I see a fast-moving train here, and time may be running out,” Jane Quinn wrote in a column last year for the publication Youth Today. Ms. Quinn is the assistant executive director for community schools at the New York City-based Children’s Aid Society, which provides a wide range of services to children and families, on and off school sites. It operates 22 Community Schools jointly with the city’s department of education.

Ellen S. Gannett, the director of Wellesley College’s National Institute on Out-of-School Time, recalled getting a sinking feeling when she visited an extended-day program in Florida and saw middle schoolers being lectured by a teacher at 4:30 p.m. When she asked a staff member when the students might be able to interact, or learn in more animated ways, she was told that those things could happen when they left the building at 5:30.

“Using time without a sense of personal, relational connection is a big red flag for me,” Ms. Gannett said. “Spending afternoons alone at computers without connecting with friends or a caring adult. This is when I get nervous.”

Those involved in expanded learning efforts are well aware that such programs are a work in progress. But the movement’s promise is starting to bring together people from fields that devote themselves to children, but haven’t always worked closely together.

“We have realized that if we are going to make a differences in the lives of kids, we have to help them succeed in school,” said Ms. Chung of the Mott Foundation. “School, after-school, and youth development can’t do it alone, nor should they have to. “We are all educators. We need to get out of those silos. And there is a real effort to do that.”

Special coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark report A Nation at Risk is supported in part by a grant from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2008 edition of Education Week as Consensus on Learning Time Builds


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management How Principals Can Resolve Heated Conflicts With Parents and Teachers
Three tips for school leaders to manage complicated and emotional disagreements.
4 min read
Illustration of a large hand holding a puzzle piece that shows a handshake and that connects two other pieces -- one with a man and the other with a woman.
School & District Management Where Is K-12 Enrollment Headed? Population Trends, by the Numbers
America's public schools will have fewer students in the coming years, but population changes vary widely by state.
1 min read
Illustration of people icon.
School & District Management How to Have a Hard Conversations With Your Teachers: 3 Tips for Principals
Here are three small steps that can ease the pain of a difficult conversation between a principal and teacher.
3 min read
Photo of two women having discussion.
School & District Management How Have School Leaders Responded to the Trump Shooting?
When a tragic national incident happens in the middle of the summer, do school officials feel compelled to respond?
4 min read
A crowd waits for Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump to speak at a campaign event in Butler, Pa., on Saturday, July 13, 2024.
A crowd waits for Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump to speak at the campaign event in Butler, Pa., on July 13, 2024, before a shooting took place.
Gene J. Puskar/AP