Teaching Opinion

Expanding Learning Time to Narrow the Achievement Gap

By Eric Schwarz & Fred Frelow — August 09, 2011 5 min read
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Even as California, Hawaii, and other budget-strapped states consider cutting weeks out of the school year, some enterprising schools and districts are dramatically expanding the learning day for students as a strategy to improve results and spark innovation. Twenty-two of these schools from 11 diverse districts gathered in Boston in July at the inaugural Expanded Learning Time summit to build a community of ELT practitioners and share best practices. We believe lessons from the summit can help inform the current national debate on extended learning, addressing questions about how to use ELT as a school turnaround strategy, how to pay for ELT, how to staff ELT without burning out teachers, and how to make sure ELT drives whole-school change instead of simply adding more of the same.

Participants in the summit described three core arguments for expanded learning time. First, they said, ELT offers more time for academic practice—a no-shortcuts strategy for improving academic performance. Second, it offers the opportunity to provide a more well-rounded education, with opportunities for adding arts and sports, college exploration, and project-based apprenticeships taught by professionals. Third, we heard from a number of participants, including Massachusetts Secretary of Education S. Paul Reville and author Frederick M. Hess, that ELT can serve as an R&D lab for new learning and teaching models that can lead to what Reville called “a new delivery model for education.”

The summit was organized by Citizen Schools, an expanded-learning partner for high-need schools. A key feature of Citizen Schools’ ELT model highlighted at the summit is a well-trained “second shift” of young educators and volunteers able to support teachers in a cost-effective way. A Microsoft engineer described how he volunteered with Citizen Schools as part of a robotics “apprenticeship” and led a team of 6th graders through the robot-design process, teaching engineering, math, and science in a fun and engaging way. Teachers described how afternoon apprenticeships motivated ELT students in their morning classes because it gave them a chance to see the relevance of the core curriculum.

A ‘Second Shift’ of Educators. Using this second shift of educators to help expand the learning day is a compelling way to address two common concerns about elt: teacher burnout and the cost of lengthening the school day.

Although alternative staffing structures can reduce teacher burnout and be cost-effective, some districts question how they can afford extended-day initiatives in the current budget climate. But it can be done."

Partnering with Citizen Schools and its full-time, recent college graduate AmeriCorps members and volunteer “citizen teachers” is one strategy for mobilizing a second shift. Another strategy is the one that Rocketship Education, the California charter school network, employs. The network has delivered excellent results with a blended-learning model in which master teachers lead instruction for six hours of the day, and college-age tutors and online learning sessions provide an additional two hours of instruction. A related approach was piloted this year in Houston through the Apollo 20 Project, in which more than 200 tutors worked in 20 schools to provide each student with small-group math instruction, extending the school day by one hour.

Although alternative staffing structures can reduce teacher burnout and be cost-effective strategies for increasing learning time, some districts question how they can afford even the most cost-effective extended-day initiatives in the current budget climate. But it can be done.

At Rocketship, school designers increased class sizes modestly for the core teachers in order to pay for the tutors and computer labs that make up the second shift. Generation Schools in Brooklyn staggered vacation time and added teaching aides, lengthening the year from 180 to 200 days without any additional costs. Apollo 20 paid for its pilot first year with grant money and district discretionary funds.

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In the case of Citizen Schools, district partners seek public grant funding to pay for ELT and use creative redesigns to make it sustainable. At the summit, one principal explained how she cut back administrative positions in order to pay for extending the day. Others offered how ELT boosted enrollment and provided their schools with associated per-pupil revenue increases. Several additional schools have devoted their Title I funds to paying for ELT, while others have received support from another federal source, School Improvement Grants, or state extended-day programs, such as Proposition 49 in California. Still others described the financial benefits and learning gains for teachers that second-shift educators can bring: They can free up time so that teachers can increase their collaboration and professional development within the standard workday.

From Practice to Policy. Summit participants also discussed the federal policy implications of the ELT programs they are engaged in. Several said they would like to see the federal optional extended-day initiative—the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program—expanded to include funding for mandatory ELT programs as well as optional after-school initiatives. Mandatory ELT, participants explained, allows schools to lower the per-child cost of an extended day and to reach children who wouldn’t otherwise enroll in optional programs. Congress is currently considering this funding issue as it drafts reauthorization language and resolves budgeting questions for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Policy should also encourage closer coordination between extended-day and core-day educators, for both optional and mandatory programs. Summit participants identified a set of ELT best practices that included joint professional development for first- and second-shift educators, alignment of curriculum to allow afternoon practice of concepts introduced earlier in the day, and the sharing of interim assessment data with ELT educators.

Expanded learning time also serves as a way to bring charter school best practices, including the provision of more learning time, into traditional district schools. For example, the Jane Long School in Houston lost one-third of its students to two nearby charters between 2006 and 2010, but then saw enrollment go up by 12 percent last year after adopting ELT and restructuring the school to offer more hands-on learning in math and science. The school’s “commended” scores for 6th graders on the Texas state math assessment also improved after it adopted ELT, going from 13 percent of 6th graders to 30 percent, according to the principal.

As the nation deepens its focus on school turnaround, we hope that more states and districts will prioritize ELT models that engage a second shift of energetic educators who share accountability for erasing the achievement gap, add real-world relevance that makes school more engaging, and also incubate innovative ideas that can lead to new education delivery models that help more children reach high college and career-ready standards.

A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2011 edition of Education Week as Expanding Learning Time to Narrow the Achievement Gap


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