Research Yields Clues on the Effects of Extra Time for Learning

By Debra Viadero — September 22, 2008 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 12 min read
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Corrected: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect university affiliation for Steven W. Hemelt and Dave E. Marcotte. They were at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, when they published their study.

In the winter of 2003, when a string of storms closed schools for days on end in his home state of Maryland, researcher—and parent—Dave E. Marcotte wondered how all that lost learning time would affect students’ achievement.

The answer, as it turned out, was quite a lot. With fellow University of Maryland, Baltimore County scholar Steven W. Hemelt, Mr. Marcotte analyzed 20 years of data from state reading and math exams to find out how unscheduled interruptions, such as snow days or teacher strikes, affect students’ test scores. They found, for instance, that, in a year with five lost school days, which is the average number for Maryland, the number of 3rd graders who met state proficiency targets was 3 percent lower than in years with no school closings.

While that figure may seem low, the consequences for schools were pretty high. The researchers calculated that more than half the elementary schools that had been singled out by the state over the past three years for failing to make adequate progress would have been on target to pass if Mother Nature hadn’t interfered.

See Also

A Nation at Risk: 25 Years Later

For the collected stories and online features in this series, see A Nation at Risk: 25 Years Later.

Mr. Marcotte’s findings, which were published this year in the Education Finance and Policy journal, cast in unusually concrete terms the kind of impact that lost—or extended—learning time can have on learning.

Since the work of the national education commission that gave birth to the report A Nation at Risk in 1983, one blue-ribbon panel after another has called for expanding learning time as a way to boost student achievement. Yet studies only recently have begun to document the potential impact that a little extra learning time might have in practice.

The research is also pretty thin on what the best strategies might be for lengthening the amount of time that students spend in school:

Would achievement improve more with a longer school year or a longer school day? Is a block schedule more effective than a “double dose” of core academic classes for students struggling in a particular subject? What about after-school programs? Studies over the past 25 or 30 years have provided helpful clues to those questions but no definitive answers.

Beyond Allocated Time

Since the 1970s, researchers have pointed out a difference between the amount of time that schools allocate for learning, the amount of time during which students are engaged in learning, and actual learning time. That’s why experts say just doubling the amount of time that students spend in school might not prove fruitful if the added time is not well used and students are less engaged during the allocated time.


SOURCE: American Educational Research Association

Making Time Count

On one point, though, scholars agree. Giving students more time won’t, in and of itself, improve learning. It’s all about what educators do to make the most of any extra time they get.

“If you spoke with most scholars who have looked at the way time can be configured and expanded, I think you’d find that the general consensus is that, while time can be valuable in enhancing student learning, you can never ignore how it will be used,” said Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

One reason that research has been slow to quantify time’s role in learning is that it’s hard to disentangle its effect from other improvement efforts going on simultaneously. The Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, network of schools provides a prime example.

The schools, most of which are charter schools in low-income neighborhoods, have won accolades for the impressive test-score gains their students make. But evaluations of KIPP schools have yet to figure out just what the schools are doing right.

Is it the academic culture, the rigorous classwork, the strict discipline and character-building lessons, or simply the fact that KIPP students spend 62 percent more time in school than peers in regular schools? The KIPP school day is typically eight and a half hours long, although some of that time is spent in after-school programs.

Students also attend half-day classes on Saturdays twice a month and then go to school two to three weeks longer in the summer, explains a report published last spring by the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank that supports expanded learning time.

“I’ve visited KIPP schools, and I think they’re doing just about everything right,” said John H. Bishop, an associate professor of human-resource studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “Maybe the extra time makes it easier to do all those other things right, too.”

Mr. Bishop said Mr. Marcotte’s study of Maryland school closings is more convincing than most because it involved more than 1,000 schools and 20 years of test data, which allowed the researchers to compare scores for the same schools over time. And, because the exams take place on virtually the same day every year in March or April, schools have not yet made up lost days before exam time rolls around.

“You have this variation in the amount of time that kids are in school that’s completely out of educators’ control,” explained Mr. Marcotte, “so it’s the closest we can get to a random-assignment experiment.”

Muddied Results

Researchers Caroline M. Hoxby and Sonali Murarka, drew a similar conclusion last year in a study of 47 charter schools in New York City. As part of the ongoing study, in which students are assigned by lottery to regular public schools or one of the city’s charter schools, researchers looked at whether student-achievement gains could be linked to particular school characteristics, such as the length of the school year, Saturday classes, the years the school had been in operation, longer days, the math curricula used, or the availability of after-school programming.

The Impact of Instructional Time

In a 2003 study, researchers Douglas Clark of Arizona State University and Marcia C. Linn of the University of California, Berkeley, tested whether condensing lessons in a 12-week, computer-enhanced program for teaching middle schoolers about thermodynamics would have a negative impact on student learning. Their results show that students fared just as well on multiple-choice tests when learning time was reduced. But their conceptual understanding, as measured by their performance on written questions, dropped dramatically.


SOURCE: The Journal of the Learning Sciences

“The longer school year was the one thing that really leapt out and was strong from the beginning,” said Ms. Hoxby, a Stanford University economist. Students learned more over the school year, the researchers found, when schools were in session for 190 days or more—about 10 days longer than is typical in U.S. schools.

Ms. Hoxby urged, though, against reading too much into the findings, which were based on just a year of test-score results.

“It could be that this really has a lot to do with a longer school year, or it could be something else about these schools,” she said. Further muddying the analysis, schools with longer years also tended to have longer school days. Moreover, the schools studied varied widely in the length of the school year, ranging from 178 to 220 instructional days.

Comparing learning time is tricky in most studies, because so much of the school day is frittered away in nonacademic activities, such as moving from class to class or passing out papers.

For example, a 1998 study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago found that students in that city typically received only 240 of the 300 minutes of instruction that schools were required to provide each day because of those kinds of day-to-day interruptions and delays.

Types of Time

For that reason, scholars long ago decided it was important to distinguish between allocated school time, allocated class time, instructional time, and academic learning time.

“Academic learning time is when students are actually learning, as opposed to getting bored or listening to something over the [public-address system],” said Julie Z. Aronson, a senior research associate at the San Francisco-based WestEd research organization. She reviewed the research on time and learning for a 1998 report for WestEd.

“If you can increase the time when students are really engaged at the appropriate level individually,” Ms. Aronson said, “then that does translate to higher achievement.”

Eleven years after A Nation at Risk, the National Commission on Time and Learning, in its own landmark study, suggested that one way to reclaim academic learning time might be block scheduling, which calls for dividing the school day into larger chunks of time for each subject.

While the approach was widely adopted, especially at the secondary school level, studies on whether students learn more in longer classes have so far yielded mixed results.

“I do think that’s something that looked more promising than it turned out to be,” said former panel member Christopher T. Cross, who is now the chairman of Cross & Joftus, an education consulting firm based in Bethesda, Md., and Danville, Calif.

Block plans might be more effective, however, if schools used them more strategically, according to Karen Hawley Miles, the executive director of Education Resource Strategies, a consulting group based in Watertown, Mass.

With her partners, Ms. Miles intensively studied high-performing small high schools in five cities across the country.

The researchers found that, while all the schools employed block scheduling, they did it in flexible and thoughtful ways. For instance, the schools might have scheduled a double block of time for science laboratories and a single block for regular science instruction. Another long block of time in the middle of the week might have been set aside for field trips or career internships, Ms. Miles said.

And, while all the schools had massaged their schedules to squeeze out more time for academics, they didn’t do so at the expense of learning in other subjects, such as the performing arts, she said.

“At first, we thought it was a positive trend,” Ms. Miles said, referring to the perceived tendency of schools around the country to cut out electives to devote more time to core academic subjects. “As we did more case-study work, though, we decided that was not so hot.”

Out-of-School Time

Outside the school day, after-school programs are drawing interest as a source for carving out more time for learning. Yet while much research has been done on such programs in recent years, it’s still hard to know what to make of the results.

In 2005, a rigorous, federally funded study by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., a Princeton, N.J., research organization, found students who attended after-school programs financed under the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program did not get any significant academic boost out of their experiences.

But a different group of researchers, looking at 35 after-school programs across the country that they considered top-notch, came to a markedly different conclusion. They found that disadvantaged students who regularly attended those programs for two years made greater gains in mathematics than did peers who spent more out-of-school time in unsupervised activities. Reading achievement, on the other hand, turned out to be more of a wash. The study was financed by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation of Flint, Mich. (“High-Quality After-School Programs Tied to Test-Score Gains,” Nov. 28, 2007.)

Critics have pointed to design flaws in both studies.

Meanwhile, an interim federal report released in June approaches the after-school question from another angle, with some promising results. The idea behind the Evaluation of Enhanced Academic Instruction in After-School Programs, according to two of its authors, is to test the feasibility and effectiveness of specially created academic curricula for elementary school after-school programs.

“It’s sort of the next logical step,” said Fred Doolittle, a study co-author and a vice president of NDRC, formerly the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. of New York City.

As part of that study, students in 50 after-school centers were randomly assigned to attend either the regular program or one of two kinds of academically oriented programs—Mathletics, a math program developed by Harcourt School Publishers, or Adventure Island, an adapted version of the Success for All reading program.

At the end of the school year, the researchers found that the math students had gained more ground on math tests than their counterparts in regular after-school programs. Overall, though, there were no significant differences in reading between the after-school reading group and children in the regular after-school program.

“In math, you could think of that growth as helping students grow by a tenth to a fifth more than they would in a regular school year,” said the lead author, Alison Rebeck Black of MDRC. “The increase in instructional time was 25 percent, so the increase in time lined up with the growth that we saw.”

Researchers are tracking the students for one more year, to see if the gains grow.

The Summer Effect

Some of the urgency behind pushes for expanding learning time has come from studies that document the dramatic degree to which disadvantaged students fall behind over the summer.

In the best known of those studies, sociologist Karl L. Alexander and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore found that both poor and better-off students make academic gains over the school year. But the more-disadvantaged students lose important ground over the summer months, presumably because they have fewer opportunities to go to camp, travel, buy books, or take part in other enrichment activities.

The researchers calculate that, by the time students reach 9th grade, two-thirds of the achievement gap between disadvantaged and better-off students owes directly to that so-called “summer learning loss.”

While some policymakers see year-round schooling as a way of making up for all that lost time, especially for disadvantaged students, few studies have found it to be an effective strategy. The reason: Most year-round schedules rearrange instructional time rather than extend it.

And, apart from Ms. Hoxby’s work on New York City’s charter schools, research on the academic benefits that come from adding days to the school year is thin and largely unreviewed, according to Mr. Cooper of Duke.

“My take on that is that, generally, you have to add 20, 35, or a sufficient amount of days,” he said, “so that adhering to the old curriculum—or stretching it out— is no longer possible, and educators really have to add new curricula.”

The pool of studies on summer-learning programs is deeper and potentially more promising, said Mr. Cooper, who in 2000 put together a meta-analysis of findings from 93 evaluations of summer school programs. Across the board, he found, such programs gave students a healthy learning boost, regardless of whether the programs were designed to tutor failing students, enrich children’s lives, or step up the pace of their learning.

“I would say there’s even stronger evidence around summer programs for disadvantaged students that combine academic support with social- and emotional-learning opportunities,” said Ron Fairchild, the executive director of the National Center for Summer Learning, at Johns Hopkins.

One such effort, Mr. Fairchild said, is Building Educated Leaders for Life, or BELL, a Boston-based, privately run summer program for urban elementary school children. In 2006, a randomized study involving 1,000 children in New York City and Boston found that participating students were a month ahead of their peers in the comparison group in reading after the six-week program.

Schools and districts are not likely, however, to embrace initiatives for extending learning time on a wide scale without solid proof to show that they work.

“Without some good evidence that these efforts can work much better than the alternatives,” Cornell’s Mr. Bishop said, “extended learning time will remain an option that some people choose but most people don’t.”

Special coverage marking the 25th anniversary of the landmark report A Nation at Risk is supported in part by a grant from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2008 edition of Education Week as Research Yields Clues on the Effects of Extra Time for Learning


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