Expanding Learning time in High Schools

Many high schools succeeding at raising student achievement are increasing the amount of time students are in school.

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Many American high schools currently succeeding at raising student achievement are increasing either the length of their school day or the length of their school year. Expanding learning time deserves more attention in high school reform debates as we raise standards and expectations, particularly in low-performing schools whose students are unlikely to reach higher standards without more time and support.

This new report examines high schools that have implemented an extended learning day as part of the required educational program for all students, rather than just providing voluntary after-school programs. It explores particular issues related to expanding time at the high school level, presents examples of how schools accomplish this, and analyzes the implications that would arise for school design, capacity, and financing if these approaches were applied on a more systemic scale.

More time is not a silver bullet. Successful schools accompany extended learning time with other inter-related practices, including a focus on preparing students for life after high school, a high expectations/high level academic core, and extra support to keep students on track with college-preparatory requirements. These extended learning opportunities allow a balance of academics and co-curricular or extracurricular activities that are important to students’ broader development. Successful schools also pay explicit attention to transitions—from middle school to high school and from high school to the world beyond—building relationships and structures that extend across these transitions. They use online and web-based learning to achieve extra time for student learning.

A key attribute of successful extended learning time schools is their recognition that extended learning offerings at the high school level need to engage and interest young people and accommodate their need to work and/or pursue interests outside of school. Student surveys suggest that the most exciting extended school options are those that help students advance towards their postsecondary aspirations by giving them access to work experience and college credit.

Some of the most promising models not only extend learning time, but also change the learning place by creating opportunities on college campuses, in community service, and through internships with employers. This expanded use of time and place exposes students to real-world performance contexts and expectations at college and work, and breaks down the barriers that separate high school-age students from the world outside of schools.

The paper advocates more systematic experimentation with extended learning time. This will require supportive public policy at the state, and to a lesser extent, the federal level. It will also require an iterative process of working through some of the challenges associated with extending learning time at the high school level in terms of culture, capacity, and cost, and adapting policy accordingly.

One of the greatest potential benefits of expanding the time and place for learning is the chance to experiment with the kinds of “out-of-the box” approaches to high school education which are sorely needed if we are to reach our goals for raising student achievement and eliminating inequities in achievement and graduation rates. Both philanthropy and local, state, and federal government can play a significant role in helping this happen.

State Governments Can:

  • Create an Extended Learning Time Initiative.
  • Deliberately encourage the development of charter schools and new schools that use an extended learning time model.
  • Adopt a weighted student funding formula which would provide extra resources for students with the greatest need, and specify that an allowable use of funds would be spent on expanding learning time.
  • Develop the expertise to support extended learning time as a standard part of state interventions in low-performing schools or reconstitution of failing schools.
  • Encourage the use of technology to supplement the curriculum offerings in high poverty schools.

The Federal Government Can:

  • Allow the blending of federal funding streams for the purpose of extending learning.
  • Change the ways in which Supplemental Educational Services funds can be used.
  • Fund a pilot/demonstration.
  • Encourage the use of technology to supplement the curriculum offerings in high poverty schools.

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