Time Hasn’t Been on Their SideBy Lory Hough
American students spend about 20 percent of their waking time in school. As schools struggle to meet standards and parents continue to juggle complex afterschool care, many are pushing for a longer school day.
Nine students are sitting in Kevin Qazilbash’s math class on the second floor of the Clarence R. Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, Mass., just a few blocks from the Bunker Hill Monument. The fluorescent lights in the room have been turned off, and the slide on the overhead projector shows an algebra test that Qazilbash, Ed.M.’98, took when he was in college. One boy is drumming a pencil, but the other eight students, a mix of girls and boys, are fixated on the screen.
Down the hall and on the floor above, in small groups and one-on-one sessions, a couple hundred other students are fact-checking stories, mapping longitude and latitude coordinates, learning how machines help with technology and engineering, and reading aloud personal essays.
It’s 1:45 p.m. and their school day is far from over.
As one of 10 (now 26) Massachusetts schools initially participating in a first-of-its-kind, statewide pilot initiative that allows schools to expand hours by 30 percent, the Edwards School is being watched around the country. Under pressure to meet standards and better prepare students to be 21st century skilled citizens (and for a smattering of other reasons), more and more public schools across the country are following the Edwards School’s path and figuring out ways to add time to student learning, sometimes by shoring up existing afterschool programs, adding Saturday and summer hours, adding days to the academic year, or, more recently, by expanding the length of the school day — in some cases by three or four hours. Between 1991 and 2007, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress found that more than 300 initiatives across 30 states had expanded learning time, primarily in high-poverty and high-minority schools. In September 2006, Edwards changed its final bell from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Last fall, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Representative George Miller (D-CA) introduced legislation that would expand learning time nationwide and provide money for training teachers to better use the extra hours. Labor unions have, for the most part, backed existing initiatives.
As more schools move forward with their own efforts, many are taking their cue from the mavericks on time and learning: charter schools, where more than two-thirds run on longer days, many successfully.
“Expanded time certainly isn’t the only thing these charter schools are doing, but I don’t think any of them could conceive of going forward without more time,” says Chris Gabrieli, cofounder of Mass2020, the nonprofit overseeing the pilot program in Massachusetts, who spoke at the Ed School in December. “Especially for achievement gap kids, I don’t know of any charter schools like a KIPP [Knowledge is Power Program] or a Roxbury Prep that are running on today’s ordinary schedule.” It is this ordinary schedule that has caused expanded learning time to become such a hot issue. In his new book, Time to Learn, Gabrieli calls this schedule, which most public schools in the country follow, a “relic from the past.”