Across the United States, most students attend school 180 days a year, and roughly 6.5 hours each day. This system is not based on any concrete data or research, but has arisen over the years as the nationwide standard. A group of leaders recently gathered to challenge this model at the Askwith Education Forum, "Longer Days in Better Schools: The Expanded Learning Model." Ron Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative and lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, moderated the event.
"Our goal is to reach kids where they are and take them where they need to go, so obviously time should be a variable," said Chris Gabrieli, cochairman of the National Center on Time & Learning. The Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time (ELT) Initiative is based on the notion that providing teachers with more time to teach and plan, and giving students additional exposure to academic enrichment and extracurricular activities, will increase student achievement and teacher effectiveness. It is the first statewide initiative of its kind, and has added over 300 hours to the school years of participating schools.
Gabrieli drew a clear distinction between simply expanded time and sufficient time. "The goal is to have sufficient time to help every kid build the academic skill base they need to succeed, and sufficient time to have a well-rounded education," he explained.
Principals from two local schools participating in ELT attended the event and offered insight into how changes in learning time have affected their schools. Jeff Riley, Ed.M.'99, principal of the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, has seen increased enrollment and immense improvement in his students' performance since adopting the ELT program in 2006.
Rather than expanding each period within the school day, the staff at Edwards created an extra period at the end of the day in which students attend one of several academic "leagues" based on their need. "It's about trying to best fit kids where they need to be. If we can get this extra time and use it wisely, it can be very powerful for kids," Riley said, echoing Gabrieli.
Conversely, Robin Harris, principal of Fletcher-Maynard Academy in Cambridge, used ELT to extend the amount of instructional time in core subjects. Lunch and recess time has also been expanded, which Harris said has had a positive impact on students' focus after lunch.
The attitude of teachers and students has changed with the new schedule. "It is hard to come to Fletcher-Maynard Academy. The students know that we are not only serious about their education but we are also instilling a seriousness in each of them," Harris said.
Harris and Riley agreed that the ability for teachers to build stronger relationships with their students has been a valuable feature of ELT. "A major component to the success of our school is relationships," Harris said. "It is important that every one of my teachers knows that child that sits in front of them, how they tick, what's important to them, and how they learn." Both schools also reserve a block of time one afternoon each week for teacher planning and professional development, which has proven beneficial to all.
Superintendent of Boston Public Schools Carol Johnson weighed in on the discussion, offering a perspective on the cost of such an initiative. "The amount of money we get from the state is not sufficient to cover all the expenses of ELT, so we now have to think more about how our partners can help us maximize the limited amount of money we have," Johnson said.
Simply adding two hours to teachers' workdays is not necessarily feasible. "Teaching is a very intellectually and physically exhausting activity. If all we're doing is saying [teachers] have to work until six instead of three, we're not necessarily going to get the highest quality performance," Johnson said. She suggested that schools adopt one external partner as a way to address both of these issues; by doing so, schools can redirect resources already offered under NCLB and allow teachers time to regroup and plan at the end of the day.
Edwards Middle School, for example, has partnered with the Citizen Schools program, which staffs a number of the school's afternoon activities. "We are always monitoring how much is too much for our teachers, and we recognized that we needed a second shift of workers," Riley said.
A common theme present in each of the panelists' comments was exposure to new academic opportunities, extracurricular activities, and situations in which students can become leaders and share their voices. Expanded Learning Time has successfully increased positive exposure for kids in participating schools in Massachusetts and across the nation.
"There is certainly a lot more to learn about time in schools, but I think the time to debate whether or not we should be trying this is definitely over," Gabrieli said.