Time Matters

Why We Need to Expand Learning Time

Students need more time in school to prepare for college and careers in an increasingly competitive global economy, and a new bill will help them get it, writes Isabel Owen.

Time in school has been identified as one of the key factors leading to academic success in high-performing schools, along with strong school leadership, effective teaching, data-driven instruction, and a culture of excellence. (AP/Rob Carr)
Time in school has been identified as one of the key factors leading to academic success in high-performing schools, along with strong school leadership, effective teaching, data-driven instruction, and a culture of excellence. (AP/Rob Carr)

A new bill introduced in Congress would greatly improve academic achievement for low-income and minority children. Recently, Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Reps. Donald Payne (D-NJ), Mike Honda (D-CA), Steve Chabot (R-OH)  introduced the Time for Innovation Matters in Education Act, or TIME Act, catalyzing a conversation at the national level about the importance of time. Targeting high-poverty schools, the TIME Act provides funding to states and districts to support the creation of expanded learning time initiatives to expand the school calendar by a minimum of 300 hours for all students in participating schools.

The school calendar in the United States has remained largely unchanged since a time when children were needed to help harvest summer crops and work in the field in the afternoon. A lot has happened since that time. Industries emerged many decades ago that moved us far beyond an agrarian economy and technology has raced ahead, demanding new and complex skills. Yet the school calendar has not shifted to reflect these changes.

Today, children in the United States attend school for an average of six and a half hours per day, 180 days a year. In this age of global competitiveness, it is important to put that in an international context. Students in Finland, Japan, and Korea receive an average of 197 days of instruction per year. All three countries also outrank the United States in an international comparison of academic achievement.

Our education woes don’t end there. Domestically, it is no secret that there is a stagnant and stark achievement gap between low-income or minority students and their more affluent peers. The confines of the traditional school schedule limit the ability of teachers and students to engage and delve deeply into academic content and develop skills for the 21st century. More time is needed to better prepare students for college and careers in an increasingly competitive global economy. Students nationally—especially low-income and minority students—stand to benefit from an expanded schedule.

Time in school has been identified as one of the key factors leading to academic success in high-performing schools, along with strong school leadership, effective teaching, data-driven instruction, and a culture of excellence. For example, Caroline Hoxby and her team found that a longer school year was the strongest predictor of high student performance among charter schools. Another study examining characteristics of high-performing high schools identified a more thoughtful use of time as a key factor in the success of these schools. It is necessary to examine how these schools (both traditional public and charter) use time and reconsider the school calendar.

Just adding time to the calendar, however, won’t suffice. Rather than simply tacking additional hours onto the school day, week, or year, the TIME Act calls for schools to completely redesign their schedule to strategically incorporate extra time for academics, enrichment, and teacher preparation, planning, and collaboration.

Schools can add time for academics in ways that best suit their students’ needs. Burroughs Elementary School in Chicago, for instance, added time to each class block, and students now spend more minutes in core subjects than the state and district averages, and outperform both the state and the district on state tests. When Clarence R. Edwards Middle School in Boston expanded its school day, it added additional time for core classes, such as English, math, and science, but also included an extra hour-long period for Academic League. This time was used to provide targeted instruction based on individual student academic needs.

In addition to more time for academics, expanded learning time initiatives include time for enrichment programming, which broaden students’ experiences and skills. Too often, high-poverty and minority children do not have access to enrichment programs such as afterschool, sports, or music lessons, and they may stand to benefit from enrichment the most. Expanded learning time breaks down the barriers to participation in out-of-school-time activities—obstacles such as fees, accessibility, and program information—because all children in a given school participate in the expanded schedule. Schools use the additional time to formally incorporate enrichment programs into the school schedule.

Providing enrichment programming in addition to quality academics is no easy task, and often schools don’t have the capacity to do it with existing resources and staff alone. The TIME Act would provide additional funding to address the resource issue but not necessarily the issue of staff capacity. Funding is competitive and schools and districts who partner with community-based organizations, such as a university or a museum, are given priority under the TIME Act. External partners can boost staff capacity and provide enrichment previously not available. These partnerships do not have to start completely from scratch. A school could utilize a community-based organization that already provided afterschool programming, and offer that programming to all students during the school day.

Expanded learning time initiatives also add time for professional development and teacher planning and collaboration. Teachers can use this time to work collaboratively with peers and instructional leaders to develop skills and lesson plans and to review student achievement data so they can improve outcomes in the classroom. According to a MetLife survey, two-thirds of teachers (67 percent) and three-quarters of principals (78 percent) think greater collaboration among teachers and school leaders would have a major impact on improving student achievement.

States and districts alike are recognizing the importance of time. Six states—Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Alabama, Colorado, Hawaii, and Oklahoma—have all launched initiatives to transition traditional public schools to expanded learning time schools. Alexandria City Schools in Virginia is applying to the state for a waiver to lengthen the school year, since under current Virginia law the school year cannot commence before Labor Day. Nearby Arlington School District gave up on applying for a waiver to expand the school year after many failed attempts and is now lobbying to change the state law.

Across the country, the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, a charter school in Los Angeles, expanded the school year to 195 days, 20 days longer than the California state minimum, and 15 days longer than the national average. Test scores at Vaughn have gone up, attendance rates improved, and the graduation rate increased—all things school administrators attribute in part to the longer school year. Also in Los Angeles, the archdiocese added 20 days to the calendar at most Catholic elementary schools this year in an effort to improve academic achievement.

These state and district initiatives are just examples of hundreds of efforts to expand learning time from coast to coast. Funding for expanded learning time initiatives is critical to building on this momentum. It is clear there is a growing consensus that more time in school is tied to student achievement, and that the current schedule doesn’t do enough for our children to meet the demands of the 21st century, let alone win the future. If signed into law, the TIME Act will provide invaluable resources to states and districts interested in increasing learning time.

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

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