Special Report
School & District Management

Why Schools See Extra Time as the Solution to Making Up for Lost Instruction

By Evie Blad — March 22, 2022 9 min read
Metaphorical concept of a clock with an overexaggerated big hand that three diverse students are sitting on with digital devices and books.
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Principal Langston Longley plays the song “All I Do is Win” by DJ Khaled for the 350 students at Atlanta’s Scott Elementary school every morning. He wants to build the children’s enthusiasm as they head into classroom sessions designed to keep them on track after pandemic-related learning interruptions.

The song choice is intentional: Longley calls the intervention sessions WIN, which stands for What I Need. He frames the extra time—30 minutes each school day—around the needs of each individual student.

“Saying, ‘It’s time to go to intervention’ doesn’t sound like fun,” Longley said. “But when the rap music starts blaring, that’s a positive thing.”

What difference will 30 minutes make? Atlanta is going to find out.

The district is one of many that have explored increased learning time for students as part of its pandemic recovery plan. Atlanta committed to adding a half hour of learning time to the elementary school day, changing the bell schedule so that students could spend focused time mastering grade-level material they may have missed. Middle and high schools integrated learning interventions into their regular school day.

It’s a strategy that predates the pandemic by decades, but the stakes are particularly high now. Administrators hope a combination of focused tutoring, targeted materials aligned with classroom lessons, and constant review of data will be difference-makers for students.

Like school systems around the country, Atlanta administrators feared students would fall behind academically after two unprecedented years of education. After rapidly closing campuses in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the district didn’t offer in-person instruction again until January 2021, when only about a third of students opted to return to physical classrooms. Some students from low-income households shifted between schools in the meantime, and some struggled to keep pace with their lessons from behind computer screens.

The district uses a standardized test, the MAP assessment by NWEA, to determine the standards in math and reading where students are falling short of grade level. During the extra school time, classroom teachers work with educational assistants and tutors to help students master those specific concepts. Students who test at grade-level participate in enrichment activities to build on what they learn during regular class time.

Even as educators wait to see the results from the first year of work, the district has already committed to the extended school day model through the 2023-24 school year.

“Now that we are back in a new normal, the question is how do you build from that?” Atlanta Superintendent Lisa Herring said, adding that administrators are exploring further ways to engage students with technology and social-emotional learning.

Using COVID aid to add time

Using federal relief aid provided to K-12 schools through the American Rescue Plan, school administrators around the country are floating a variety of academic recovery strategies to squeeze in more learning time, including summer learning and after-school tutoring programs. Fewer are using Atlanta’s model of extending the school day. In a February survey by the EdWeek Research Center, just 10 percent of district administrators and principals said they had lengthened the school day to close pandemic learning gaps.

Researchers at FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University, reviewed relief spending plans of 3,200 school districts in 50 states. Their March 1 analysis found that about 1,500 districts planned to include summer learning in their academic recovery plans, making it the most popular category. Nearly 1,000 districts planned after-school programs or extended school days, which were lumped together in the same category. About 500 districts planned interventions that combined after-school programs and summer learning.

That’s the case in Atlanta, where special summer learning programs started as early as 2020, Herring said.

“This was one of several strategies that we believe are critical to make up for interrupted learning,” she said. “We didn’t wait until the fall for all of this.”

Efforts to extend student learning time predate the pandemic. And advocacy groups have backed such efforts dating back to the 1983 release of “A Nation at Risk,” a federal report that flagged concerns about the U.S. education system and noted students in other countries spent more time in the classroom. But researchers have found mixed results for schools’ efforts to ramp up instructional time, and they have stressed that extra time doesn’t always lead to extra learning.

For example, a 2014 metanalysis of 30 studies conducted by researchers at the American Institutes for Research found four extended-time literacy programs that boosted performance for elementary students proved ineffective when used in middle schools. Similarly, researchers found no effect on student achievement when extended learning time programs were led by graduate students and volunteers, rather than trained teachers. Extended learning time programs led by teachers had a small positive effect on students’ math and literacy scores.

So will it be different this time? Will schools make the extra time count at a moment of heightened urgency?

“There is research to support expanded learning time with a big caveat: Just adding extra minutes onto the day in and of itself isn’t necessarily going to help students make learning gains,” said Allison Socol, assistant director of P-12 policy at the Education Trust, an organization that advocates for educational equity.

The Education Trust is one of several organizations that have encouraged extended learning time as a key learning recovery strategy, alongside targeted, “high dosage” tutoring programs and efforts to build healthy relationships within school communities.

After reviewing years of research, the organization identified a few key strategies for extended learning programs, Socol said. Among those recommendations:

  • Use curriculum that is aligned with classroom learning standards and targeted toward the needs of each student.
  • Hold programs as part of the regular school day and year because students attend them more consistently than voluntary after-school programs.
  • Group students in class sizes of about 10-15 students to give teachers space to address individual learning needs.
  • Academic recovery work is best when led by certified teachers, rather than volunteers or other adults.

Making extra time count

Atlanta administrators have tailored their efforts around research, said Herring, the superintendent.

Over three years, the district plans to spend $8.5 million of its federal aid on curriculum to help with academic recovery at all grade levels, and about $14.3 million for staffing costs associated with a longer school day for elementary school teachers.

While principals have some flexibility in how they schedule and use the extra time, the district has placed an emphasis on having certified teachers leading the work, Herring said.

“Our teachers are trained and qualified and skilled to be the ones in front of our children to ensure they are learning,” she said. “It’s mission critical.”

At Scott Elementary, for example, WIN sessions involve two adults in every classroom of about 20 students, said Longley, the principal. About 80 percent of those adults are classroom teachers. The remaining 20 percent are tutors and teachers of subjects like music.

Students in WIN complete lessons based on the academic areas they tested lowest on through a combination of computer-based modules and in-person instruction.

School leaders track student growth in all areas in addition to the total number who’ve reached grade-level proficiency on tests, Longley said. At the beginning of the year, about 90 percent of Scott students needed intervention in reading or math. That number has fallen to about 75 percent, but even students who haven’t reached grade level have seen growth. The school was listed among the top three in the district for its test-score growth on the most recent MAP assessment.

“The growth data was a big breath of life for the teachers,” Longley said. “It made them feel like their work was really worthwhile.”

Atlanta’s Continental Colony Elementary School takes a similar approach with rotating cohorts of students cycling between math and reading, so that students get five consecutive days of instruction in each subject, Principal Kristen Vaughn said.

Teachers divide their classrooms into two groups, who each spend half of their time in direct instruction and half on a software platform. To use the 30 minutes well, teachers worked hard to get the transition between groups down to 30 seconds or less.

“We really had to work on those transitions because 15 minutes is quick,” Vaughn said, “but you can still get a lot done in 15 minutes.”

The district has also emphasized social-emotional learning to help students stay motivated as they tackle academic challenges.

At Colony Elementary, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students met individually with adults at the start of the year to set goals for their learning, which “really helped ground them,” Vaughn said.

At Scott, students can use hand signals to show their teachers they aren’t prepared to be called on in a group setting or if they’d like to ask a friend for help. Classrooms also have “peace corners,” where students can sit for a moment if they are frustrated or overwhelmed.

“And we celebrate everything we possibly can,” Longley said, adding that teachers give students “pop up parties,” include their names in announcements, and give them recognition on computer slides for things like logging in every day or showing academic growth.

Barriers to extending the school day

To be sure, there are some major hurdles that make it difficult for schools to expand learning time.

For one, many districts struggle with staffing, even during the regular school day. Teacher absences and shortages of substitute teachers can make it difficult to cover every classroom. Teachers also consistently report concerns about burnout on national surveys,and that has led to a lack of volunteers for things like summer school or after-school programs. Even President Joe Biden urged Americans to serve as a mentor or tutor in his State of the Union address last month.

Atlanta principals told Education Week they have motivated teachers through the longer school days by regularly reviewing data and celebrating every instance of growth. The district has also partnered with Emory University to offer counseling and support to teachers.

And, while the district hasn’t had the depth of staffing struggles some other school systems faced, it did face one big obstacle: the challenges of changing school schedules on a dime.

Adding time to the elementary school day meant changing bus routes and adjusting the schedules of middle and high schools to make the whole system work.

“There are certain things that are never easily executed in schools, and one is [changing] the school arrival time,” Superintendent Herring said.

The district faced an outcry last May when it announced that high schools would start 45 minutes earlier, at 7:45 a.m., to accommodate the lengthened elementary school day.

After community forums to seek feedback on the plan, district leaders adjusted the plans, allowing middle and high schools to start slightly later than their previous bell schedule and adding 15 minutes to the beginning and end of the elementary school day.

“We’ve found that it’s been well received now that we are in the full throes of the year,” Herring said. “It’s become our natural pattern.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 2022 edition of Education Week as Why Schools See Extra Time as the Solution to Making Up For Lost Instruction

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