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Past and Present Learning

The public school system as we know it today was created more than 150 years ago. Since the mid-19th century public schools have transformed themselves in many ways. They have evolved from one room schoolhouses serving a few dozen students, to large institutions serving several hundred, and the curriculum has expanded from literacy, arithmetic, penmanship, and manners to include science, history, physical education, foreign languages and the arts. But as these and other educational updates occurred, several areas were ignored, in particular the use of learning time.

For more than 20 years, calls for extending learning time have largely gone unheard. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education released A Nation At Risk, a major report outlining five recommendations including increased learning time. Eleven years later, the National Education Commission on Time and Learning released Prisoners of Time, another report calling for longer school days and/or school years. In 2005, 22 years after A Nation at Risk, the Renewing Our Schools, Securing Our Future National Task Force on Public Education released Getting Smarter, Becoming Fairer: A Progressive Education Agenda for a Stronger Nation, again stressing the importance of making better use of learning time.

The increased focus on opportunities for extending learning time in our public schools can be attributed to its great potential for impact. Making better use of school time holds the promise of improving student performance and closing achievement gaps. The simple truth is that American students – regardless of income, age, race, or linguistic abilities – are no longer making the grade and this could prove detrimental to our future democracy and our place in the global economy if action is not taken soon. However, students in programs of extended learning tend to make academic gains that exceed those of children in traditional learning programs. Reorganizing the school year and providing greater learning time and opportunities, particularly in low-performing schools and districts, can enhance the rigor, innovation and academic supports of public school education in a systematic manner designed to boost student performance.

Restructuring the school year and making extended learning opportunities readily available must be priorities at the local, state and national levels. With renewed attention to improving low-performing and high-poverty schools, the federal government can stimulate local and state efforts through demonstration projects and/or an updated Title I formula that provides additional funds to schools and districts committed to implementing programs of extended learning. A look at the benefits of these programs explain the immediate need for action.

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