President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have both been enthusiastic supporters of increasing the amount of time students spend in school. The latest way in which the administration has made its commitment to more and better learning is through the U.S. Department of Education’s flexibility in regard to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act. In 2011 the department invited states to submit plans that implemented education reforms, set high standards for all students, and closed achievement gaps in exchange for leeway from certain No Child Left Behind requirements.
To apply for ESEA flexibility, states are required to outline potential interventions in their lowest-performing schools, making sure the interventions are aligned with seven turnaround principles that the Education Department established under Race to the Top in 2009, of which increased learning time is one. ESEA flexibility also allows states to tap into the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, or 21st CCLC, federal funding stream to pay for expanded learning time, in addition to afterschool and summer-school programming, which have been the traditional uses of such funds.
Last month the department released its 21st CCLC guidance for states, providing examples of high-quality expanded learning time and explaining how 21st CCLC funds could be used to support expanded learning time. For the purposes of flexibility under ESEA, the guidance also provided a comprehensive definition of expanded learning time, calling it:
… the time that a local educational agency or school extends its normal school day, week, or year to provide additional instruction or educational programs for all students beyond the state-mandated requirements for the minimum number of hours in a school day, days in a school week, or days or weeks in a school year.
The department’s decision to add expanded learning time as an option to the 21st CCLC program is wise. Indeed, there is a substantial body of research suggesting that more time in school can have a significant impact on student achievement. The department’s decision is also timely, as many state and local officials have of late taken action to make it easier for schools to expand the school day if a school determines that it is needed or could be beneficial. It is not hard to find examples of successful expanded learning time schools across the country. From New York to Colorado, there are a growing number of states, districts, and schools committed to redesigning the school day. Moreover, in 2012 the National Center on Time & Learning found that there are more than 1,000 expanded learning time schools located in 36 states and the District of Columbia that serve more than 520,000 students—and the numbers are growing.
Expanded learning time and out-of-school time programs
Children from low-income families are often at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing learning opportunities outside of school. Some have argued, and rightly so, that the persistent opportunity gap between low-income students and their wealthier peers should be addressed by extending learning opportunities to all students in high-poverty schools to ensure that they have access to a well-rounded education.
Historically, out-of-school time programs—for example, before- or afterschool programs—have been a popular option for providing low-income students with opportunities for afterschool tutoring, sports, arts, and field trips. Research suggests that students who attend afterschool programs have strong academic motivation, strong relationships with adults and peers, and feel safe in their surroundings. Further, high-quality out-of-school time programs have been shown to provide students with positive social and personal skills. High-quality out-of-school time programs are important for supplementing the normal school day and for closing the opportunity gap between high- and low-income students.
Clearly, high-quality afterschool programs can play an important role in providing children with a well-rounded education. During a time when large numbers of low-income children are continuing to fall behind academically, however, an innovative approach to educating them with both academics and enrichment such as sports and arts has emerged: expanded learning time as part of school-reform efforts.
Aimed at high-poverty, underperforming schools, the Center for American Progress defines expanded learning time as the lengthening of the school day, school week, or school year for all students in a given school by approximately 25 percent to 30 percent—the equivalent of roughly two hours per day, or between 300 and 360 hours per year. To be effective, the concept of expanded learning time requires the complete redesign of a school’s educational program in a way that combines academics with enrichment for a well-rounded student experience and that supports teachers by giving them more time for planning, training, and professional development.
Core design principles of expanded learning time initiatives include:
- Schools as the focus of reform
- School redesign to add learning time, not a “tack on” of additional time
- Expansion of learning time that is significant
- Expansion of time for all students in a school
- A focus on low-income students
- Time and support for teachers and administrators to plan for a redesigned school calendar
- School leadership and support for expanded learning time
- A focus on core academics, enrichment, and teacher professional development
In light of the department’s release of expanded learning time guidance to states, we detail below the three reasons why including expanded learning time as an option in the 21st CCLC program is a good policy.
Expanded learning time encompasses all students
Perhaps the strongest argument for expanded learning time policies is that they apply to all students in a school. Traditional out-of-school time programs are voluntary and often do not reach the students who need the most help, particularly at-risk and disengaged students and middle-grades youth. For a variety of reasons, these groups of students are less likely to attend out-of-school time programs than their elementary-school counterparts and more advantaged peers. Although research has explored ways to engage these hard-to-reach groups, many programs continue to struggle with this challenge. Expanded learning time, as the department defines it, would extend the school day, week, or year for all students, therefore capturing all students in a school, including those who might not enroll in before- or afterschool programs.
Expanded learning time allows more time for academics and teacher collaboration
As the department’s guidance highlights, there are a variety of different ways that schools might choose to implement high-quality expanded learning time. The overarching theme throughout, however, is that the extra time should be used wisely to support student achievement.
The emphasis on more time for teachers and students is especially timely given the recent adoption and implementation of the Common Core State Standards. A recent report sheds some light on the potential challenges that states face in implementing the more rigorous college-and career-ready Common Core standards, especially when compared to the standards currently in place for most students across the country. As such, preparation will require new lesson plans, new assessments, and, for many teachers, a new way to approach instruction.
Furthermore, it will take a considerable amount of time for students, many of who are already behind academically, to grapple with the tougher requirements being implemented within the next school year. More time in school, when used wisely, has great potential to make this transition period easier for both students and teachers. In fact, in a recent survey about Common Core implementation from teachers’ perspectives, 74 percent said that more planning time would help them feel better about teaching the new standards.
Expanded learning time closes the opportunity gap
When expanded learning time is implemented as a complete redesign of the school day and lengthens the amount of time all students spend in school, more students will have opportunities to fully participate in enrichment activities. As a result, students have more time to explore a variety of interests, from soccer to science experiments to music and art—the possibilities are endless.
A recent report highlighted lessons from five schools that did not have to make the choice between using time for academics or arts. These schools expanded the school day and held firm that art classes were a core component of their comprehensive educational program. To close the opportunity gap, some schools choose to partner with community organizations to provide students with an array of options from which to choose. The role of a community partner in expanded learning time can be an integral part of a successful expanded learning time school.
The Department of Education’s decision to expand the choices available for uses of 21st CCLC funds presents a great opportunity for schools to determine whether increasing the amount of time students and teachers spend in school fits their needs best. Including expanded learning time as an option simply adds to the potential uses, while keeping in place all of the traditional uses and requirements of 21st CCLC funds. In short, this change in policy merely gives schools more flexibility with respect to how the funds can be used and leaves the decision about the best way to do so—be it for expanded learning time or out-of-school time programming—up to them.
Tiffany D. Miller is the Associate Director for School Improvement at the Center for American Progress.