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OFF THE CLOCK: New Report Examines How Extended Time Can Impact Student Learning

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“To suggest that our nation’s worst schools will be transformed, and that student outcomes will improve, because of more time is not any different than suggesting that they will be transformed by more money.”

While acknowledging that support and funding for extended learning time (ELT) have grown considerably in the past several years, a new report from Education Sector finds that more time is not necessarily the cure for poor student performance. Instead, the report, Off the Clock: What More Time Can (and Can’t) Do for School Turnarounds, argues that time, like money, is only a resource, but whether it will help children learn depends on how it is used.

“To suggest that our nation’s worst schools will be transformed, and that student outcomes will improve, because of more time is not any different than suggesting that they will be transformed by more money,” the report says. “Both are necessary, and both boast plenty of persuasive adages about why more is better. But both are overly simplistic treatments to the very complex problem of improving education.”

The report notes that, even as funding for public education has declined dramatically due to budget cuts, supporters argue that time beyond the traditional school day can help close the “opportunity gap” between more affluent students, who are exposed to a range of activities outside of school hours, including dance, swimming, karate, and even robotics classes, and low-income students, who often spend their afternoons watching television, caring for siblings, and working.

At the same time, however, the report also notes that this opportunity gap is not restricted to out-of-school time. In fact, poor children are more likely to attend schools with less experienced teachers, more leader and staff turnover, cultures of low expectations, and overall records of failure, the report argues, saying “More time is not enough to counter the sobering reality that these lowest-performing schools just don’t have the people they need.”

Within the last few years, ELT has received billions of federal stimulus dollars to expand learning time on behalf of disadvantaged children, the report finds. Additionally, it notes that the Department’s effort to grant states waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act includes a “major bet” on ELT. In 2011, Education Sector examined state waiver applications under the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program and found that more than 90 percent of all SIG grantees chose a school improvement strategy that incorporates ELT. In its analysis, Education Sector found that some applicants described “comprehensive, well-designed improvement strategies” incorporating ELT, while others merely “[shaved] a few minutes off recess and lunch and [redirected] them to ‘instruction.’” It is this balance between more time for more time’s sake and time as part of a more comprehensive reform that occupies much of Off the Clock.

The report notes that there is an “enormous difference” between time that is “technically” allocated for instruction and time spent “authentically engaging” students in learning. It points to research finding no significant positive relationship between the amount of mere “allocated” time and student achievement. “Put simply, not all time in school has the same impact on learning,” the report notes.

Based on the Education Sector analysis, the report examines three main approaches schools are taking to extend learning time: (1) adding time to the formal school schedule; (2) expanding learning outside of the regular school schedule; and (3) changing the way time is used within the school day. Within each of these options, the report finds success stories and approaches that add extra time but do not necessarily change what goes on during those extra hours.

Under the first method, adding time to the school day—which, the report notes, is the least common approach among SIG grantees because it is expensive and typically means changing teacher work schedules—Matthew J. Kuss Middle School in Massachusetts is highlighted. It was the first school in the state to transform itself from “chronically underperforming” in 2004 to not even eligible for SIG funds today. At the school, all students spend 30 percent more time in school and teachers are provided with additional development time. According to Nancy Mullen, the school’s principal, more time is not the only reason for the school’s success, but she says it is a big one. At the same time, however, Mullen is not sure how the school will continue to fund teacher salaries, which have increased by 25 percent under ELT, once SIG money runs out in three years. According to the report, the personnel costs alone of extending time are estimated to be “at least $1,300 more per student per year.”

The second option featured in the report, expanding time outside of school, is the most common ELT approach because it “avoids much of the cost and controversy of paying for and restructuring teacher’s work.” The report compares it to traditional afterschool, Saturday, and summer school programs, but it notes that there is “nothing simple” about expanding time outside of the school schedule. In particular, almost all schools with plans to use this option rely on a community partner, external provider, or both, as well as additional staff, such as volunteers or members of a public service corps. Additionally, an intermediary is often needed to coordinate partners, manage staff, and coordinate funds.

According to the report, the final approach, using existing time differently, sounds sensible, but its results “often fall well short of the mark.” The report finds that schools using this approach frequently propose to gain time for instruction by decreasing noninstructional time—namely lunch, recess, or the time allotted for students to move between classes—and redeploying it throughout the day for more math or reading instruction. But not all schools included in the report fall into this “nickel and dime” approach. Instead, they are restructuring existing time to ensure that students are better engaged and have access to quality learning opportunities. Some schools featured in the report, such as Gentry High School in Massachusetts and New York City’s School of One, are using technology to boost learning time. “What is clear is that technology is rapidly expanding as an educational tool and will surely expand options not just for extending time but for enhancing learning,” the report notes.

Most schools cited in the report that have succeeded with extended time have done so because they include time as part of a more comprehensive reform. For example, schools in Massachusetts must commit to redesigning their entire education program—including staffing, labor agreements, compensation, and scheduling—to receive state ELT funds. “These schools are not just adding time to compensate for what they lack,” the report notes, “they are integrating time into an overall model for successful teaching and learning.”

Off the Clock is available at http://bit.ly/InvdaI.

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