If 8th grader Leo Parnell were not in school until 4:15 each day, he says, he’d be spending his afternoons sprawled on the couch, watching TV and sipping Mountain Dew. Or he might be skateboarding or getting into trouble.
The lazy afternoons ended for Leo last year, when his school joined in a closely watched experiment going on across the Bay State to find out whether students can learn more by spending more time in school. So now, Leo spends the hours between 1:30 and 4:15 p.m. at Clarence R. Edwards Middle School, where he practices math, plays football, and writes songs.
“I feel a bit more prepared for high school since I’ve had more time to soak up extra learning,” he said.
While it may sound like a given that added learning time can translate to better test scores, research suggests that whether it does remains an open question. Some studies show that students do better when they spend more time reading or engaging in other kinds of enrichment activities. Others find only weak or no correlations between time and learning.
Experts hope Massachusetts’ experiment, known as the Expanded Learning Time Initiative, will shed light on the issue. Under the program, schools can get $1,300 a year more per student if they extend instructional time by at least 30 percent, or about 300 hours, over the course of a school year.
The program began last year with 10 schools, including Edwards, in five districts. Nine more schools joined this year, bringing the total number of students involved to 9,000 in eight districts; 37 more schools plan to launch revised school schedules in 2008-09.
Newly released preliminary data suggest the state’s investment of $20 million to date may be paying off. In the first 10 schools, most of which are located in poorer urban areas, the academic gains students made over the 2006-07 school year in math, English, and science outpaced statewide averages.
The percentages of students hitting state proficiency targets in those schools grew by 7.2 percentage points in math, 4.7 percentage points in science, and 10.8 percentage points in English/language arts.
The promising results come as interest in expanding learning time has picked up nationwide. At least eight other states are exploring the idea and at least two presidential candidates have put it on their education agendas.
On Capitol Hill, proposals in both the House and the Senate for reauthorizing the federal No Child Left Behind Act also call for financial incentives for schools to extend the school day or year.
The push is partly fueled by the increasing demands schools face under NCLB, which requires them to show that all subgroups of students, including those from minority groups or who come from poor families, make academic progress each school year.
The pressure is most acute for struggling urban schools, where students often start out at an academic disadvantage, and has even prompted some schools to cut back on art, music, and other subjects in order to carve time out of the typical six-hour school day for more instruction in core academic subjects.
“As the demands on students and teachers have expanded, so should time spent on learning,” Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick, a Democrat, said in a videotaped message to 500 educators attending a Nov. 30 national conference on expanding learning time. The state education department and Massachusetts 2020, a nonprofit group that works with the state to implement the expanded-learning-time initiative, sponsored the event.
To educators at Edwards, a diverse middle school located in Charlestown, the gritty neighborhood that was a backdrop for the movie “Mystic River,” the need to boost learning time was long apparent. The nearly century-old school serves 310 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, many of whom are bused here from predominantly African-American, Latino, and Asian neighborhoods across a wide swath of the city. Ninety percent of the students qualify for federally subsidized meals and, five years ago, half or more of the students were failing state math exams.
“We think the extra time is huge,” said Jeffrey C. Riley, Edwards’ new principal. “You’ve seen the research that shows that, when you take out the field trips, assemblies, and other things, that kids who are supposed to get 180 days of instruction a year end up getting 154. This allows us to put those hours back in and more.”
The staff at Edwards also saw the state initiative as a way to give more students access to the kinds of extracurricular activities that are a regular part of life for children growing up in the suburbs.
“We had a great band, a great musical theater program, but the same 40 or 50 kids were involved in everything,” said Heather Campanella, who teaches technology and performing arts classes at the school. The rest left at 1:30 p.m.
With its grant money, Edwards last year began operating from 7:20 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. (Dismissal time this year was moved to 4:15 p.m.) On Friday, classes are dismissed at 11:45 a.m. so that teachers can take part in professional development or prepare for the week ahead.
From 1:30 to 2:45, students attend “math league,” where they practice math concepts and compete in math games for fun.
“Our math textbooks are fine, but there are some gaps between them and the state’s math framework,” said Carla McCormack, who chairs the school’s math department. She co-writes the lessons that teachers use in the afternoon math classes, tailoring them to fill in such gaps and target areas where Edwards’ students falter on state exams.
Seventh grader Troy James says the practice sessions work. “I’ve been kind of smart in math since I’ve been doing this,” he said.
Students spend the rest of the afternoon in either academically oriented study sessions or electives, all of which are offered on alternating days. Besides band and musical theater, the offerings include cooking, art, photography, step team, Latin dance, karate, cheerleading, art, community service, and an outside apprenticeship program. This fall, Edwards added football to the list, becoming the first middle school in the city to field a team in that sport.
To prevent academic burnout, teachers also inject some fun into the late-afternoon tutoring sessions, to which the lowest-performing students are assigned. In Hassan Mansaray’s “ELA All-Stars” class, for instance, the English- language-arts students play basketball, take a break to write about events on the court, and then play and write some more.
The new schedule unquestionably makes for a long day. Leo, who lives in East Boston, is among many students who rise at 5:30 a.m. to catch the school bus and return home at 5:30 at night.
“Students complained in the beginning. Some were exhausted and dragging their feet by December,” said Michael Clinchot, an 8th grade science teacher. “This year, they seem to have adjusted.”
Staffing and scheduling the additional classes also proved tricky. Teachers are paid their regular hourly rate for staying later, but they can’t be required to do it. Still, next semester, nearly all of Edwards’ regular teachers will be teaching an afternoon class.
This semester, Mr. Riley estimates that two-thirds to three-quarters of the afternoon classes were staffed by Edwards teachers. Outside partners, such as Citizen Schools, a nonprofit group, teach the remaining classes.
Ted Chambers, the building representative at Edwards for the Boston affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said that, though his union supported the redesign from the start, the prospect of outside providers’ supplanting regular teachers was a concern.
“The state has teacher-certification requirements for a reason,” he said. “We wanted to make sure some fresh-faced, 21-year-old providers weren’t being placed in a situation they’re not ready for.”
To address that issue, school administrators this year give monthly professional-development sessions to outside providers and coach them on aligning their lessons with state curricular requirements.
On the plus side, teachers said the longer days have contributed to better relationships with students and an improved overall school culture. “My personal opinion is that schools that are effective are centered around relationships, and I think this provides more time to build relationships,” said Carolyn Smith, an 8th grade civics teacher.
On the downside, enrollment declined by about 80 students in the last year. Educators said the decline reflects a citywide drop in enrollment and increased competition from a newly opened K-8 school nearby.
But the prospect of a longer school day also put off some families in Boston, as it has in other Massachusetts communities. Statewide figures show that only about half the communities that expressed interest in the program on the first go-round ended up applying for a grant.
It’s hard to argue, though, with Edwards’ latest state-test results. They show that, over the 2006-07 school year, Edwards went from being one of the lowest-performing of Boston’s 16 middle schools to one of the best. Percentages of students in each grade who passed state math tests increased by 14 to 22 percentage points. Passing rates also grew on language arts and science tests.
With hefty percentages of students still getting failing marks, though, the school next semester will expand the league concept to include other academic subjects and assign students to those classes based on their academic needs.
What’s more difficult to tell, from a research perspective, is which ingredient, among all the changes at Edwards, led to its apparent success. That’s a question the state hopes to tackle, at the statewide level, over the next three years through a more fine-grained study of the initiative.
Conducted by Abt Associates, a Cambridge, Mass.-based research group, that study will compare participating schools’ achievement growth over the next two to three years with the schools’ previous learning gains, as well as those of demographically similar schools. Researchers also will try to ferret out specific practices at participating schools that seem to link to bigger improvements.
What is clear to educators on the ground, though, is that it’s not the time itself that makes the difference; it’s what educators do with it. “Without a careful plan,” said Mr. Riley, the principal of Edwards, “it’s just glorified babysitting.”
Coverage of education research is supported in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.