Five states have pledged to add at least 300 hours a year to their school calendars in an attempt to close achievement gaps.
The initiative, called the time Collaborative, for Time for Innovation Matters in Education, is supported by $3 million from the New York City-based Ford Foundation. The states—Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee—will receive the money over the next three years to implement the project in 11 districts; more are expected to join later.
Education leaders, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Govs. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut, both Democrats, were on hand to launch the initiative at an event here last week. They and other leaders of the project stressed the necessity of providing struggling students more time to catch up academically and be exposed to the enriching opportunities many have lacked.
Districts will work with the Boston-based National Center on Time & Learning, an advocacy organization that promotes school turnaround using expanded learning time, to carry out their plans, which are to take effect for some 19,500 students in the 2013-14 school year.
But the initiative, proponents say, is not about adding minutes before the final bell rings, but rather, redesigning the structure of the school itself.
“Our goal is not simply to expand learning time, but to make sure that every minute of the school day is well spent,” said Chris Gabrieli, the co-founder and chairman of the center. “We want to ensure students gain personalized academic support and enrichment courses to ensure a well-rounded education, as well as provide teachers the time they need to prepare, collaborate, use data, and hone their craft.”
According to the time and learning center, 1,002 public schools in the United States use expanded learning models, about 40 percent of them regular public schools and 60 percent charters. In a new report, the center says the number of schools has increased by 53 percent since 2009, and on average, they keep students 7.8 hours a day, compared with a national average of 6.7 hours.
Many advocates for expanded learning time say districts should use the time to meet school-specific needs and goals, rather than adhere to a prescribed model. For the new project, the 32,000-student Rochester, N.Y., district, for example, will aim to use the extra time to ensure all students are reading at grade level by 3rd grade.
The district, which has more than 90 percent of its students qualify for subsidized lunch and provides all students free lunches daily, also plans to tackle challenges brought on by families’ poverty, said schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas.
“I don’t know how to give a child a stable family or a stable neighborhood, but I can give them a stable place to do homework, to take theater, arts, or music classes, and even have dinner,” he said in an interview. “All students can and should learn if you give them enough time and support, but for too long, we haven’t considered time a variable.”
Learning From Experience
The expanded-learning model is not new for all.
Massachusetts has been a leader as the only state with an established funding stream to support such learning. The Massachusetts Expanded Learning Initiative, which began in 2005, provides $14 million in public funding to support 19 public schools that have longer days or years. The initiative also helped spawn the creation of the National Time & Learning Center.
And in Colorado, the Colorado Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works closely with the state education department, has conducted research on expanded learning for several years, as well as helped support schools that have undertaken new models with added time.
According to Helayne Jones, the president and chief executive officer of the Legacy Foundation, the biggest lesson learned from its research and work is that planning and innovation are essential. Ms. Jones said the state’s low per-pupil funding and the limited community partners in more rural locales has inspired creative thinking on how to use time better to improve student outcomes.
“For people on the ground, it’s key to get rid of the assumptions we make about how school needs to look every day—that it can only take place in a certain way, in a certain style,” she said, citing models that incorporate technology or learning outside the classroom. “As we start to approach [expanded learning], we need to start thinking about what’s possible with innovation, not just with extra money.”
Ms. Jones said the state already has an eight-hour teacher workday, so the new work will focus on restructuring the schools to use existing time better.
States will be trying various approaches. Connecticut, as an example, plans on staggering teacher schedules to cut costs and make the model more sustainable.
For some education leaders, the new proposals warrant optimism that the redesign could help schools deliver more efficient and higher-quality education. But given the cost of adding time, analysts warn that district leaders should be careful to use it effectively.
Elena Silva, a senior associate for public-policy engagement at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, based in Washington, who has studied expanded learning, said leaders must consider all factors that contribute to a high-quality education. In a report Ms. Silva wrote this year that examined how schools were using the extra time, she found great differences in how it was used. She warns that schools considering adding time should measure success by student achievement, rather than implementation of the change itself.
“This isn’t just about redesigning the ‘when’ of schooling: it’s about how and where and who,” she said. “We need to be able to get to designs that afford all children access to a rich array of learning opportunities with a strong cast of adults supporting them, at all times and in various places. For that, more time may be necessary, but it’s in no way enough.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2012 edition of Education Week as States Pledge to Expand School Hours, Days