Student Achievement

Longer School Days and Years Catching On in Public K-12

By Kathryn Baron — April 17, 2015 4 min read
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A growing number of American schools are ditching the 19th century—when it comes to the school calendar that is. Twice as many schools today have a longer school day or year than just two years ago and, for the first, more of them are traditional public schools than charter schools, according to a joint report released Thursday by the Boston-based National Center on Time and Learning (NCTL) and the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Of the 2,009 schools that had expanded learning time last year, 1,208—or 61 percent—were regular public schools. That’s almost a total flip from 2012, when there were 1,079 schools with additional time and 56 percent of them were charters.

The number of students attending charter and non-charter extended learning time schools has also doubled during that period, from 520,000 to nearly 1.2 million.

Jennifer Davis, president of NCTL, said the shift indicates that charter schools are fulfilling their mission as centers of innovation in education whose successes can be models for traditional public schools.

“Every high-performing charter school in America has more time,” Davis told Education Week. “That’s the only way they have been able to show that kind of educational gains for their students.”

An interactive database developed by NCTL shows that schools in 44 states and the District of Columbia have added at least 30 minutes to their school day or 10 days to their academic year.

Some have gone well beyond that. So far, 41 schools in five states increased the school year by 300 hours as part of an NCTL initiative called the TIME Collaborative (Time for Innovation Matters in Education), which you can read more about here.

The rapid pace of growth reflects a policy shift at all levels of government, said Davis.

The U.S. Department of Education recently changed the regulations for its School Improvement Grants—funds designated to turn around the lowest-performing, high-poverty schools through expanded learning time and other measures—by extending them from three to five years.

When the Senate committee on Health, Education, Pensions and Labor approved a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act earlier this week, in an action we wrote about here, members also agreed to let states use funds in an after-school grant program to expand learning time.

The most significant changes and incentives for extra time are occurring in the states. In the past two legislative sessions, lawmakers in all 50 states introduced hundreds of bills giving schools and districts the scheduling flexibility and funding to go long. More than 40 of them passed, including these:

  • Florida allocated $75 million to add an extra hour of literacy instruction in the state’s 300 lowest-performing elementary schools.
  • New York implemented a $24 million program to lengthen the school day by 300 hours a year in specific districts.
  • Colorado established “innovation schools,” giving designated schools the flexibility to redesign the school day and schedule.

At the local level, the Boston teachers union, mayor, and school board reached agreement in late December to lengthen the school day by 40 minutes at 60 elementary schools. As Education Week reported here and here, the pact gives teachers an annual $4,500 stipend and an extra 75 minutes a week for collaboration, planning, and professional development.

As the graphic below from the report indicates, the majority of expanded time schools serve low-income, high needs students— 77 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and 86 percent are students of color.

It’s a challenge for any school to fit in everything they have to teach given the new focus on collaborative and project-based learning and deeper problem-solving skills required to master the Common Core State Standards, said David Farbman, senior NCTL researcher and lead writer of the report. But it’s especially daunting for high-poverty schools.

“It has become clear that meeting the learning needs of many of our students—especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds—requires considerably more time than is available in the traditional calendar of 180 6.5-hour days,” write Farbman and his co-authors.

But the purpose of the additional time isn’t just to give low-income children more math and reading, said Davis, they also need opportunities to study art, music, science, robotics, and other activities that either aren’t available or affordable.

“What we’re doing,” she explained, “is trying to enable children living in poverty to have close to the same educational opportunities that people with resources, like I do, invest in our own kids’ education.”

But the report stresses that expanded learning time is one piece of a larger reform strategy that should include strong accountability measures, using data to improve instruction, and ensuring that teachers have strong collaboration and professional development time.

It also calls on the Department of Education to provide funding for technical assistance to help states, districts, and schools create a plan for implementing expanded learning time; and to gather more data on the impact of expanded learning time on students and to develop a better system for sharing that information.

“There isn’t enough of that in America,” said Davis.

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