As districts work toward helping students catch up, a handful of strategies have emerged as popular best practices—intensive tutoring, summer programs, and after-school opportunities among them.
But one option has been largely absent from districts’ COVID-19 recovery plans: increasing the amount of time students are in school, either by adding more days to the academic year or tacking more minutes onto the school day.
Decades of research suggest that more, well-used time in the classroom correlates with higher achievement across student demographic groups. And while it’s not clear exactly how many schools or districts have employed additional days or longer days as a COVID recovery strategy, it is clear that it has been a relatively unpopular choice, even as districts confront historic lapses in achievement.
The reasons why are complex. Changing school calendars and adding required time in the classroom for all students isn’t easy, and many schools run into resistance when they try, making optional approaches more appealing.
On top of the time-consuming logistical challenges of rearranging operations like bus routes, the majority of parents don’t favor the move, according to a study by researchers at the University of Southern California. Only 23 percent of parents in a nationally representative survey said they supported a longer school year, and 19 percent supported a longer school day.
“When you talk about new initiatives, it’s really difficult to launch them if there’s not that buy-in from families,” said Phyllis Jordan, associate director of Future-Ed, a think tank at Georgetown University that has studied how districts are spending their federal COVID-19 relief funding.
Difficult negotiation processes with teachers’ unions and other labor groups also complicate the picture.
In Los Angeles, a $122 million plan to add four days to the year to address learning loss fell apart as the district clashed with the city teachers’ union, which called on its members to boycott the first planned additional day.
Eventually the two sides agreed to add four optional learning days during vacations for students to receive one-on-one assistance or small-group instruction.
Without a requirement, most students won’t participate in extra services
The problem with optional interventions, particularly when the majority of students have regressed or not made expected academic gains, is that there’s no guarantee students who most need help will get it.
In a working paper published in October, researchers at Brown University and the University of California Irvine found that many struggling and marginalized students don’t opt in. In fact, the authors—Carly Robinson and Susanna Loeb, at Brown, and Biraj Bisht at the University of California Irvine—concluded that opt-in systems can lead to the widening of disparities, rather than a reduction as intended.
The study examined methods used to increase uptake of optional tutoring at Aspire Public Schools, a public charter school network in California. The researchers found that 12 percent of students who received a D or an F in at least one class in the prior semester opted in to optional tutoring, compared to 23 percent of students who passed all their classes.
Sending personalized messages to both parents and students increased struggling students’ opt-in rate by 122 percent, according to the paper. But, still, only about a quarter of struggling students opted in.
That’s why, the researchers concluded, integrating tutoring into the school days is more likely to reach kids who really need help.
Some schools have taken the leap, adding hours or days
That same principle goes for extended learning, too. And despite the challenges, some schools have managed to successfully roll out these learning opportunities.
At the start of the 2021-22 school year, Atlanta extended elementary students’ school day by 30 minutes after buildings were closed for nearly a year at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The district planned to continue the model through at least the 2023-24 school year and modify the approach as they got new data tracking its effectiveness.
The San Antonio district added 30 days to its calendar in 2020-21, tacking days on to the beginning and end of the year and adding a few throughout, too.
Dallas issued a survey to schools whose principals bought in to the model, and found 46 elementary and middle schools with enough interest from families and staff to implement year-round calendars at those schools, infusing more frequent breaks rather than an extended summer vacation as it increased the overall number of days.
There are two year-round options, depending on the community’s preference, and the district plans to keep them in place for two years, anticipating that if it’s effective, it will begin seeing markedly improved math and reading scores by then.
In May, Dallas’ Deputy Chief Academic Officer Derek Little told FutureEd he had begun seeing improvements in reading, but not yet in math, but was optimistic for the future of the program.
“The bottom line here is we haven’t learned enough yet to make a long-term decision, but where we are right now is promising,” Little told FutureEd.
Benefits of extended learning go beyond academics
In Kansas City, Mo., Gordon Parks Elementary added 31 days to its calendar. Like the Dallas schools, it did so by shifting to a year-round calendar.
With an enrollment of about 150 students in kindergarten through 4th grade, staff saw nearly universal improvements in students’ academics and social skills. When students return after a three-week break, rather than after a multi-month vacation, teachers have to spend less time doing initial relationship building and setting expectations. That time is instead focused on classwork.
“We found that we weren’t doing a lot of reteaching, although there’s room for some of that, and the kids came to classes in August knowing the procedures and processes, their teachers and administrators, and expectations of them,” the school’s Chief Executive Officer Kirsten Lipari-Braman said. “It wasn’t brand new again.”
She said those relationships and opportunities to build social skills are just as important as the academic progress.
After months, and sometimes more than a year, of virtual classes, students of all ages are relearning how to interact with their peers and to manage their emotions, Lipari-Braman said. This is especially true for the youngest students, who had limited in-person school experience pre-pandemic or who started their academic careers virtually, and those who experienced trauma.
“Unless we deal with what’s in the heart, we’re not going to be able to help them with the work,” she said.
Gordon Parks also managed to avoid another challenge other schools and districts face: When the school rolled out the new calendar, all but two staff members decided to stay, Lipari-Braman said.
She credits the retention to clear communication about why the extra instruction time is useful and needed, and innovative approaches to avoiding burnout.
Staff members received a stipend for the extra work, and the school built a reliable pool of substitutes that can fill in when teachers inevitably need or want to take vacation time.
Focusing on moving forward, rather than catching up
Some districts say the insights they’ve gained from successful other initiatives like summer school could be applied to make extended learning more attractive, too.
Scott Muri, the superintendent of the Ector County Independent School District in Texas said his district added 11 days to the calendar prior to the pandemic, bringing the total number of instructional days to 180. Then, in 2021, the district launched a new 30-day summer program for elementary students.
It’s optional, but rather than focusing on “catching up” students who’ve fallen behind, it’s intended to meet the needs of all students and push them forward academically, Muri said.
“The marketing for all of this was all about engagement and opportunity and the opportunities and experiences children would have during the summer, as opposed to making up a course or getting caught up,” Muri said. “It was more about, ‘You don’t want to miss this,’ and it’s exciting.”
The traditional summer school model used to draw about 1,500 students, Muri said. This year, about 6,000 students participated out of the roughly 33,500 enrolled in the district.
Teachers, staff members, and families bought in to both the addition of 11 school days and the extended summer program because the district has regularly communicated data about both overall and individual student achievement, making the case for “a strong why,” Muri said.
Teachers were also intimately involved in the development of the programs. They devised a model for the summer program in which they “job share,” working one half of the summer before being tagged out by another teacher to work the other half.
The approach helps avoid burnout, important now as districts across the country struggle with staffing shortages, Muri said.
Some schools start at a disadvantage
There’s another wrinkle to the conversation about extended learning: The amount of time students spend in school varies greatly across the United States, depending on state laws on the minimum number of days or hours of instruction. States can do more on their own to increase students’ time on task, some researchers note.
Students in states including Alaska and Florida are only required to attend 900 hours of classes per year. In Maryland, the minimum number of instructional hours is 1,170.
That means that high school graduates in Maryland will have been required to attend about 160 more days of instruction in high school than their peers in Florida and Alaska, according to recent research from Matt Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University and Sarah Novicoff, a graduate student in education policy at Stanford University.
In their paper, they suggested the states with instructional requirements below the national average of 180 days should raise them to more closely align with others.
“Minimum learning time requirements are blunt instruments, but they offer a feasible top-down policy reform that is within the control of policymakers and district leaders,” the paper said. “The available evidence suggests that these efforts would benefit millions of U.S. students.”
With evidence of success, districts plan to continue extended learning
No matter how schools and districts add time, how they use it matters.
Muri, in Ector County, said districts should focus on creating rigorous programs and opportunities to fill the extra time that are engaging and interactive. Ideally, they’re different than experiences students would get in the traditional school year.
The Ector County district emphasizes STEM activities during the full-day program, which has been a big hit with students.
“They want to be there and it’s certainly enriching and helpful to them, as opposed to the traditional summer school in which we saw zero effect,” Muri said, adding that when students who participate take the MAP test at the end of the summer, results show they generally have experienced no “summer slide” and often have made notable progress.
That progress is enough to make him want the program to continue.
Many districts can use federal COVID aid dollars to implement extended learning opportunities, but want it to continue beyond 2024, when the funds expire.
Armed with data showing it benefits students, Muri said he plans to lobby state lawmakers for funding.
“These things that have yielded results,” he said, “those are the things that we have to figure out how to continue.”
Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the November 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as The Learning Recovery Strategy Districts Are Overlooking