Student Achievement

Lessons From One School’s Failed Experiment With a Longer Day

By Madeline Will — July 31, 2014 3 min read
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One Connecticut school added extra time to its school day in an effort to close the achievement gap—but a year later, the idea was scrapped and the extra time was instead designated for teachers.

The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit education news outlet, reported on the case at New Haven’s Brennan-Rogers School, which serves students in grades pre-K-8 in a low-income community. Urban districts that serve high-poverty populations are increasingly adding more time to school day—but simply adding time isn’t always enough to raise student achievement, research shows. The Brennan-Rogers case, in that regard, is reflective of a larger issue. You can read the whole story here, but here are a few takeaways.

  • Brennan-Rogers extended its school day by an hour and 25 minutes. Students went to school from 8:20 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. four days a week, but were dismissed early on Wednesday so teachers could use that afternoon for training.

    • Effect: Parents struggled with finding child care on Wednesdays and most were not in favor of the new schedule. (We’ve reported before that some experts argue that buy-in from parents and educators is important to successfully launch an extended learning approach.)
  • The initiative happened because Brennan-Rogers was one of the lowest-performing schools in the district. The district designated it as a “turnaround” school, which, according to the New Haven Independent, means all teachers had to reapply for their jobs and Brennan-Rogers had to make some changes. The school received federal grant money to expand learning time.

    • Effect: Students had no advance notice of the changes and felt punished. There were many new teachers as a result of the turnaround, and students “tested” them.
  • Teachers, many new, were faced with a lot of changes the first year: from both the longer school day and other instructional initiatives.

    • Effect: This led to teacher fatigue, according to the school’s principal.
  • The teachers union allowed teachers to work longer hours with extra pay, but the unions for support staff, like teacher’s aides and secretaries, did not.

    • Effect: Teacher’s aides’ schedules were staggered to cover classrooms. There were 45 minutes a day added for teacher collaboration while students went to art classes and gym, but teachers had to walk kids to those classes, which cut short the collaboration time. The front office was unstaffed for the last 90 minutes of the day.

After a year, there was no significant academic improvement and while student behavior was better, test scores went down, according to the Hechinger Report story. The following year, Brennan-Rogers went back to a shorter day and instead, added an hour of kids-free time in the morning for teachers to collaborate and learn new tools. Teachers say they now instruct more efficiently, and the past two years, the school had the highest gains in the district on state standardized tests.

Next fall, Brennan-Rogers will add 15 minutes to the school day so kids have more time to work on communication skills and conflict resolution. But the school’s initial struggle with extended learning is not uncommon. The Hechinger Report reported:

The Brennan-Rogers case reflects challenges faced by schools nationwide that are part of the federal turnaround grant program, said Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning, which advocates for extended learning time. Federal authorities require those schools to add instructional time, but they often rush into the changes without enough advance planning, and they don’t add enough time for teacher collaboration and training.

Evidence is mixed when it comes to students benefiting from a longer school day, a federal report found. The most effective programs happen when certified teachers deliver the instruction, time is spent on both traditional and experiential instruction, and programs target specific student subgroups, like struggling readers. We wrote about these findings on this blog earlier this month.

Another report that we recently wrote about developed ways to assess extended learning time—for example, does the school ensure access to more and better time, minimize time distractors, and make sure all students have the support they need?

The Brennan-Rogers case offers a lot to think about: Is extra teacher collaboration and training time more effective than extra learning time for students? Was the extended school day simply not given enough time to work? What could the school have done better or more effectively to enhance student learning? As always, we welcome discussion, so post your comments below.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.