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States Need to Fill in the Gaps on Expanded Learning Time

Troubling Lack of Detail Seen in No Child Left Behind Waiver Applications

SOURCE: Center for American Progress

Chelsea High School in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in 2001. Massachusetts was the only state of the 11 that applied for No Child Left Behind waivers that delivered a standout plan for schedule redesign.

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Last fall 11 states—Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Tennessee—submitted applications to the U.S. Department of Education seeking waivers from some parts of the outdated No Child Left Behind law, which requires states to adopt standards, assessments, and accountability programs, and set a goal of 100 percent student proficiency in reading and math by 2014. All 11 states have now received those waivers, and 26 states and the District of Columbia subsequently submitted applications seeking flexibility from the law. Most of the first-round states, however, missed an important opportunity to rethink how they use time in school to promote student achievement.

In return for flexibility on some parts of the No Child Left Behind law, the U.S. Department of Education asked states to develop plans addressing three areas of reform: setting college- and career-ready expectations for all students; developing differentiated recognition, accountability, and support systems; and supporting effective instruction and leadership.

The U.S. Department of Education also gave states three opportunities—one required, and two optional—for redesigning the school calendar as part of their waiver plan.

The waiver process offers states new flexibility to use significant funding steams for expanding learning time. Specifically, if granted a waiver districts will be able to use their Title I set-aside, which is 20 percent of a district’s Title I funding, for a broader array of extra programming designed to increase student achievement, including high-quality expanded learning-time programs. These funds were previously limited to Supplemental Education Services—which funds activities to increase student achievement in low-income schools, such as tutoring—and choice-related transportation, which funds transportation costs for students in low-performing, low-income schools who opt to transfer to a higher-performing school. The new flexibility allows states and districts to use this noteworthy funding source to implement research-based strategies to increase achievement.

Furthermore, states could opt for flexibility to use their existing 21st Century Community Learning Center, or 21CCLC, funds for lengthening the school day, week, or year. Without a waiver this federal funding is limited to enrichment programming outside of usual school hours, such as voluntary after-school or summer programs.

Opening up these previously restricted big pots of money is a welcome opportunity for states that struggle to fund a longer school day or year in a meaningful way.

States were also required to identify their lowest-performing schools—classified as priority schools—and detail intervention strategies for these schools aligned with the seven turnaround principles the U.S. Department of Education established, including “redesigning the school day, week, or year to include additional time for student learning and teacher collaboration.”

The opportunity to increase learning time is just a small part of the very ambitious reforms states are including in their waiver applications.

But since effective teachers using expanded learning time is a proven strategy to increase student achievement among high-poverty students, it demands states’ attention. As states prepared their waiver applications we cautioned them to carefully think through their plan to expand learning time. We suggested examples of best practices to outline a path states should take to comprehensively redesign their school day or year as part of their strategy to turnaround low-performing schools, a key part of the waiver application. Yet few states provided specific detail on how districts and schools should reconsider time in school.

After reading and comparing each state’s application, however, we discovered that most states did not take industrious approaches to restructuring time in school. Eight of the 11 states in the first round asked for flexibility in using their 21CCLC grants, but only three—Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Oklahoma—provided any insight into how they will use the 21CCLC funding differently. This begs the question: What do states intend to do with this new flexibility?

To make matters worse, Colorado’s, New Mexico’s, and Tennessee’s applications provided very little detail about using time differently. They failed to think strategically about time and instead just listed more time as a possible intervention strategy. More time is a proven intervention strategy, yet additional time will only lead to improved academic achievement if the schedule is redesigned to more effectively use time for both teachers and students.

Schools and districts in those states may be in danger of merely adding time to the end of the school day or year, which will not lead to improved achievement. These states wasted an opportunity to explain their thinking and approach to increasing learning time and did little more than pay lip service to the intervention strategy.

With the exception of a few applications, states failed to prioritize schedule redesign. Only one state stands out—Massachusetts—because of its plan to provide guidance on how districts and schools can best use additional time to improve instruction, add time for enrichment, and get the most out of teacher-collaboration time. While the majority of states (Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Oklahoma) demonstrate a commitment to schedule redesign as part of a package of interventions, they do not provide much specific detail about increasing learning time.

The analysis is far from exhaustive, but it does provide a helpful lens to examine each state’s approach to increasing learning time. We grouped states based on how detailed their waiver application’s proposals for increasing learning time were.

Massachusetts delivers a standout plan for schedule redesign

As states begin to implement the plans laid out in their applications, we make recommendations for tackling the lack of detail in states’ learning-time proposals. Namely, we recommend that:

  • States should create guidance that helps districts and schools think about their current time use and how they could redesign the calendar to more effectively use time. States can use existing research and examples from best practices as they develop tools and guidelines for districts and schools. In addition, the eight states that were awarded flexibility in the use of their 21CCLC funds should develop strong plans for how those funds can be used to redesign the school calendar for all students.
  • Districts and schools should analyze current data to determine the specific needs of their students. Based on their analyses, districts and schools must then consider how additional time can be used to address current weakness in their schedule. Schools and districts can develop an expanded schedule for schools allowing more time for the subjects where students are struggling, as well as time for teachers to meet, analyze data, and develop individualized approaches to addressing the deficiencies.
  • Districts and schools should monitor the new schedule to ensure that the additional time is used well. Districts and schools must be willing to make adjustments to better address their students’ needs. Monitoring can help safeguard against districts and schools wasting additional time.
  • The U.S. Department of Education should push states to address the lack of detail about learning time in their waiver applications and keep thinking about how to better use school time. During the application-review process administered by the U.S. Department of Education, peer reviewers provided feedback and states revised their applications based on identified weaknesses. The U.S. Department of Education should maintain a similar relationship with states to guide the implementation process. And it should provide clear, high standards for implementing high-quality expanded learning time based on successful schools already in operation.

Despite the lack of detail, it’s not too late. States, districts, schools, and the U.S. Department of Education can still work to redesign the school calendar to incorporate time in a meaningful way as states begin to implement intervention strategies in their low-performing schools.

This brief takes a close look at state plans to increase learning time and how states aim to use the additional time well. First, we describe why expanding learning time is an important intervention strategy in low-performing schools. Then we provide examples documenting the sparse detail found in the applications, followed by some of the highlights from the applications relating to more time. Finally, we make recommendations for all stakeholders to assist and monitor the implementation process for the first-round winners and the future rounds of waiver applications. 

Isabel Owen is a Policy Analyst with the Education team at the Center for American Progress.

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