Taking Stock of the Fiscal Costs of Expanded Learning Time
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With increasing demands for improved student performance, many education policymakers are considering reforms that would expand learning time for all students. In fact, there are now numerous examples of individual schools that have implemented some form of expanded learning. Yet as more education leaders consider this promising strategy, the first questions that come to mind are:
- What are the cost components of different proposals?
- What is the price tag associated with different proposals?
- How do the costs compare with other reforms?
- How can districts cover the costs?
This paper seeks to address these questions in a way intended to assist policymakers at the district level in considering expanding the length of the school day. After a short introduction to the thinking behind expanded learning time and the core models for implementation, we provide a framework for policymakers and practitioners to identify the key cost components involved in expanding the school day. We then cost out core design elements, and compare these costs against other reform initiatives.
Lastly, we explore investment in expanded learning time in the context of existing funding sources and other trade-offs and strategies that must be considered at the same time. As with simply adding more dollars to schools, adding time makes little sense unless it is part of an overall strategy for improving student performance.
With growing demands and higher expectations for students, schools and districts are drawing on a range of strategies to boost achievement, particularly for high-poverty students. These strategies include reduced class sizes, professional development for teachers, more specialists, teacher compensation reforms, and other resource-intensive strategies. One strategy that has gained recent attention is expanding the length of the school day.
Support for expanded learning time has grown in recent years as schools across the United States have tested different models and experienced, in many cases, improved student achievement. Rather than restricting student learning to the current national average of 6.5 hours per day and 180 days per year, this reform strategy expands the time available to students to both reinforce their basic skills and help them move beyond proficiency, provide targeted support, and increase the opportunities to participate in electives or explore non-academic subject areas.
In some cases, the expanded time also allows for increased professional development for teachers. Charter schools, because of their flexibility, have been extremely active in the trend of expanding learning time. At the high school level, where so many students enter the ninth grade significantly behind in credits and skill level, extending time has become particularly urgent. A recent study of high-performing small urban high schools in California, Illinois, and Massachusetts shows that these schools increased total student learning time by an average of 20 percent, mostly by extending the school day.
Public schools have also more recently begun to experiment with increased learning time, especially in chronically underperforming schools. A recent study of successful district efforts to create support for turnaround schools shows that each of these districts included extended learning time in their short-list of initiatives.
Implementation of expanded time varies in three ways:
- How much time is added
- Which students participate
- How the time is used
While some proposals call for lengthening the school day, others promote an increased number of school days, or both.
Most seek to expand learning time by at least 20 percent to 30 percent, which for most urban public schools means adding anywhere from 90 minutes to over two hours. A recent initiative in the State of Massachusetts provides funding and support for the expansion of learning time by at least 30 percent. Second, schools differ on whether extended time is required for all or just a targeted set of students needing extra support. Finally, designs differ as to whether the entire school day is reorganized to create a more enriching student experience throughout the day, as compared with simply tagging on additional services to an otherwise unchanged school day.
In this paper, we consider the definition put forth by the Center for American Progress, which supports expanded learning time for high-poverty, low-performing schools by no less than 30 percent (equaling two hours per day or 360 hours per year) for all students in the school. As school administrators redesign their school day, schools can use the expanded learning time in various ways to support learning, including:
- Offering tutoring or small group instruction
- Extra time for mathematics and literacy initiatives or focus on other core classes
- Longer class blocks
- Enrichment activities
- Increased time for professional development and planning, and special projects.
One of the major concerns about implementing expanded learning time is how much these new schedules will cost, and where districts will find the money to pay for the increased time. As states begin to forecast tighter budgets, it is unlikely that expanded learning time reforms will be funded solely with newly designated public funds. Rather, interested district and school leaders will likely have to make some strategic resource-allocation decisions in order to implement and sustain initiatives for expanded learning time.
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