Student Achievement

Seeking the Right Balance of Quality and Quantity in Expanded Learning Time

By Kathryn Baron — April 02, 2015 3 min read
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More schools, especially charters, are lengthening the school day and year, but no amount of additional learning time will improve student outcomes if it’s simply more of the same thing that isn’t working in the first place, according to a recent report from the National Center on Time and Learning.

“A large body of research has demonstrated that quality of instruction is perhaps the most significant in-school factor contributing to student achievement,” writes David Farbman, a senior researcher at the National Center on Time and Learning (NCTL) in his study, “The Case for Improving and Expanding Time in School.”

“The relationship between the quantity of time and learning cannot, in other words, be considered in isolation; instead, time’s impact is governed by the user,” he adds.

That’s not exactly groundbreaking news, but between now and an earlier version of the report published in 2012, researchers have been delving into the classroom to look at how high-performing schools are using the extra time, particularly schools that serve large populations of low-income, at-risk students.

The question of what promotes more learning is “a topic that researchers continually come back to, partly because it is one of the key components of the education equation,” Farbman told Education Week. “I think that intrigues researchers. How do we figure out exactly that balance between quantity and quality when it comes to time and how that plays out in academic and other student outcomes?”

He points to one study in particular that analyzed scores on the Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA—an exam given every three years to half-a-million 15-year-olds in more than 70 countries. Researchers compared test results with the classroom environment—instructional time, professional development, and teaching methods—based on PISA’s surveys of teachers, students, and administrators. They found overall academic improvement in schools with more learning time, but that the outcomes varied depending on the classroom environment factors.

Expanding the school day or year is becoming more of a consideration as Common Core State Standards are implemented because they require a new set of techniques, such as student collaboration and project-based learning, that take more time. Although there is no definitive research measuring how much time is enough, Farbman said teachers and curriculum designers are warning that they won’t be able to do everything they need to do in a typical 180-day school year and six-and-a-half hour day.

“That’s important research that we want to get out there. It fits with the broader argument that more learning time is especially important for kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds,” said Farbman.

Lost learning time has become a legal issue in California, where students at six high schools filed suit claiming they were losing hours of class time due to scheduling mismanagement. You can read more about that in this Education Week post.

The NCTL has compiled a database showing that currently about 1,200 traditional schools and 800 charters schools have expanded learning time. It’s easier for charters to implement because they have more flexibility over scheduling and how they spend their money. Lengthening the school day is costly, but some districts, cities and states are putting up the funds. As we reported here in January, Boston expects to spend $12.5 million a year to add 40 minutes to the day in about 60 elementary and middle schools. A few years ago, as Education Week reported here and here, Florida became the first state to require its 100 lowest performing elementary schools to add an hour to their day for reading instruction at a cost of $30 million. This year the state added another 200 elementary schools to the program.

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