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Time Hasn't Been on Their Side

By Lory Hough, on January 20, 2009 7:40 AM

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.

edwards_school_stairs.jpgNine 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."

Part of the problem, experts say, is that the current day (six hours) and current school year (180 days, with summers off) are based on an outdated model created decades ago. "Learning in America is a prisoner of time," said the 1994 report, Prisoners of Time, put out by the National Education Commission on Time and Learning. "For the past 150 years, American public schools have held time constant and let learning vary." Traditionally, farming communities had shorter days and fewer of them so that children could help out with crops in the spring and fall. In contrast, by the mid-1800s, many urban schools ran year-round, in part because cities felt that new immigrants needed extra time to assimilate. Eventually there would be a middle-ground compromise, with the bulk of students in school for six hours, 180 days, with summers off. For the most part, this compromise calendar worked fairly well. As the Prisoners of Time report stated, "In our agrarian and industrial past, when most Americans worked on farms or in factories, society could live with the consequences of timebound education." Even dropouts "could . . . look forward to productive unskilled and even semi-skilled work" and make a decent living.

Now, the report forewarned, "all of our citizens, not just a few, must be able to think for a living."

edwards_school_guitar.jpgAs a result, American students are feeling more pressure to be highly skilled and globally competent. And schools, says Senior Lecturer Paul Reville, have had to pick up the slack. Reville serves as secretary of education in Massachusetts and has pushed for additional funding to cover more schools in the state. "We are asking schools to do far more," he says. "We also now ask teachers to get all students to a standard. Before they only had to get a few."

And this takes time. "The more time is coming at the expense of other subjects" beyond math and reading, Reville says. Subjects like science and social studies, not to mention gym class and band.

In particular, the extracurriculars, says Kate Mazurek, Ed.M.'05, principal of KIPP Ascend, a charter school in Chicago, are just as important as academics, which is why all 66 KIPP schools across the country operate on longer days -- her school from 7:25 a.m. until 5 p.m. "Expanded learning time provides more time for students to work on academic skills, but also other skills that are as equally important to develop their sense of self -- the arts or a language, for instance," she says. "This is especially important for students in places like the west side of Chicago and other poor communities that, because of budget constraints, might not otherwise have these options."

Some have responded to this narrowing of the curriculum by saying the nation should back off of rigid testing. Instead, says Reville, we should look at another option: more time. "What I suggest is that we need to have an expanded schedule to allow schools to do everything -- get all students to proficiency, give them a thorough education in other subjects like history, offer a well-rounded education that includes health and art, and create students that have the skills that employers want in the 21st century."

Edwards School principal Jeff Riley, Ed.M.'99, looks over at a giant white board in the corner of his office that lists all of the extracurriculars (what his students refer to as the "fun stuff") that three extra hours afford. On Mondays and Wednesdays, students can cook, step, swim, play soccer, and dance with the Boston Ballet. On the other days, they can write songs, play guitar, play football, sing, and act.

The longer day also gives them more time to tackle academics in depth. "We have about an hour and a half in what I call targeted assistance," says Riley. "A kid who is strong in math but not English will get extra English. We take a ton of data on our kids to see where they're best served in small groups."

This model is just one way to expand time, says Priscilla Little, assistant director of the Harvard Family Research Project, which has been studying various time and learning approaches. "My bet is that no one model will work for everyone. And there shouldn't be one model," she says. "You have to have choices at the community level."

At KIPP Ascend, regular class periods, or blocks, are twice as long as the average block -- 110 minutes every day for core subjects like math, reading, social studies, and science. General academic support is offered from 4:15 to 5 p.m. "We identify the specific skills that each student needs, but most of our 'extra' time is spent on more time for each regular class," says Mazurek.

Although most students go home at 5 p.m., some choose to stay another hour for the Whatever It Takes program, which is run by teachers and allows students to do homework. The school also extends the day in another nontraditional way -- students are given teachers' cell phone numbers and are allowed to call them on school nights until 9 p.m. and on weekends. "Most teachers receive two to five calls a night, mostly for quick, easy questions about homework or something they missed," Mazurek says.

Other expanded models include adding mandatory everyother- Saturday classes or days to the year. Schools like Democracy Prep Charter School in Central Harlem, which ends at 5 p.m. and runs for 200 days, also has a summer session. The program lasts three weeks and serves about 40 percent of the student body.

"Those students who participate most definitely have a lesser degree of summer knowledge loss than our students who don't participate," says founder and head of school Seth Andrew, Ed.M.'02, "but they are also those who are in the greatest need of extra support. We end up retaining 10 to 15 percent of our students each year because they started so far behind that even after extended day, extended week, and extended year, they are still not ready for the rigor of the next grade level."

edwards_school_straws.jpgSome schools expand time less formally with afterschool programs, some based at the school with current staff and some partnering with community groups. However, the reason more and more schools are abandoning their voluntary afterschool programs and opting instead for mandatory longer days or extra weeks is because attendance can be spotty. Research from the Harvard Family Research Project found that afterschool programs can work, but programs need to be both of high quality and attended on a consistent basis. Recently, in Columbia, S.C., school administrators found that only 13 percent of eligible students took advantage of free afterschool tutoring, in part because of the "stigma" of afterschool help. Riley says this is part of the reason the Edwards School, which struggled for years with low test scores, switched from their traditional afterschool approach to the expanded day. "We had Citizens Schools coming in to run our afterschool program," he says, referring to the nonprofit that connects students to local apprenticeships. "They did a great job, but it was catch as catch can." On average, 40 of the 400 students would stay on any given day.

Mazurek says teacher quality is another factor. "Most of the afterschool programs that I know of have other people come in to teach or staff members add responsibility," she says. "Here all of the teachers who teach during the day stay. As a result, there's a lot of consistency about expectations. It's very seamless." (They do, however, rely on outside help for Saturday classes.)

No matter what model is followed, a key question is: Does more time really make a difference.

Doctoral student Helen Malone has been researching time and learning and says that because this is so new, "there's no rigorous data yet, but what they are finding is that kids are making significant gains on standardized test scores."

In Massachusetts, after the first year of the initiative, "proficient" English language arts scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test at the 10 schools jumped 39 percent above the previous five-year average. At Edwards, the number of students scoring "proficient" on the math portion of the test rose 12.7 percentage points. At KIPP Ascend, where many fifth-graders start one or two grades behind in reading and math, after four years at the school, 100 percent of eighth-graders passed math and 94 percent passed reading on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test.

Reville and Gabrieli both say it will probably take at least five years before they can really analyze the results in Massachusetts. "You can see success earlier when you look at how parents or how faculty feel -- that you can find pretty quickly," Reville says. "But when it comes to trends in student achievement, we really only have one set of results. We need to see a few more years. But we're confident that we'll see it happen."

Damien Pankam, an eighth-grader at Edwards, says his grades have gone up since he started the longer day. "The teachers expect more but they also explain more," he says. "There's also more time to ask questions. That makes the work easier for us. The teachers also have extra time to review material that we did last year."

edwards_school_step.jpg

Some of the evidence is not based on scores, but on how students act. Riley says that last year, about 20 sixth-grade families picked the Edwards School as their first choice. This year, the number shot to 243 for 80 slots. And it's not just parents doing the choosing: students want to be at schools with longer days. Domonique Toombs and Lauder Quitumba, Edwards eighthgraders, both say they'd even make the day longer if they could.

"I love stepping. If I have a bad day, stepping helps me let go of all of my anger," Toombs says. "But, stepping [class] also goes like that," she says, snapping her fingers. "I'd like to go even later, until at least 5:30 p.m."

Quitumba agrees: "When I play sports, the teacher will say two more minutes and it's time to go. It goes by too fast."

Long term, some say true success will be achieved only if these largely successful models and practices can be taken to scale across the country. "Most evaluations taking place are under Mass2020 or KIPP, so we don't know if you have a mom-and-pop shop trying to expand the day, will they have the same gains?" says Malone. "Are we then getting just a skewed model? Right now we're only seeing well-funded, wellsupported models."

Frederick Hess, Ed.M.'90, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., says that part of the reason current expanded time schools do show success is because their student bodies are self-selected -- families choose these schools. And for the most part, teachers know what they're getting into and school leaders have had time to think about the plan. (Schools under the Massachusetts initiative take about a year to strategize.) "We shouldn't be wedded to the old model, but that said, if we're going to draw on a fresh canvas, we need to do more than mimic promising practices of a few schools," Hess says. "That's our frequent song."

Back in Riley's office, in addition to the white boards, there's also a giant old vault next to his desk. Strips of masking tape divide the vault into sections: high-performing math students on top, their names written on bright green magnets; those who need extra help on the bottom.

"This year we will have even more charts as we move to include kids in subgroups, too," he says. "We have found it to be a concrete way to track students' progress, as well as schoolwide progress."

This attention to detail is important for schools considering adding more time, says Amrita Sahni, Ed.M.'06, director of instruction at Edwards and the former part-time expanded learning time director.

"The first thing a school has to do is think through the logistics," she says. "What systems do you need to get in place? What policies need to be made? You need to think through the schedule and transportation. Is there a nurse? Get these foundations down before you try to focus just on quality."

Stephanie Edmeade, Ed.M.'99, the school's current (and fulltime) expanded learning time director, says it is also important to get all staff involved early.

"Listen to their concerns and create a committee to oversee and work on an action plan to figure out these issues," she says. "I found that having staff onboard and informed was key."

It is also important to get parent buy-in, especially in underperforming schools, where parents will ask, why give my child more of the same? "We have to prove that this proposition adds value and isn't overwhelming for our children," Reville says.

edwards_school_trombone.jpg

Current doctoral student Hilary Bresnahan taught in a traditional elementary school before switching to a charter school with an extended day, 200 days a year, plus 20 mandatory Saturdays. At the charter school, many students were burnt out by 2 p.m. It was up to teachers to find creative ways to engage them.

"We restructured the curriculum so that the most important areas -- the areas students were lowest in -- were in the morning or right after lunch," she says. "In the afternoon I focused more on science and social studies, and some math enrichment as these were hands-on and more active lessons. I also tried to get the kids outside as much as possible, holding math or science activities at the park with some playtime built in."

On the other hand, although she says the traditional sixhour day allowed "kids to be kids," the extended day gave students -- especially those prone to spending afternoons in front of the television -- more enrichment opportunities. Another bonus is that the extra time in school means less homework at night. This is especially important for students like Dahiana Loaiza, a seventh-grade student at Edwards, who has to cook dinner and take care of her little sister when she gets home. "I can get all of my homework done during the extended day," she says. "And the teachers are there if I have questions."

As a result, Reville says the longer day is proving popular with parents, especially those who work outside the home. "Most parents today are working and most kids are going home to jury-rigged daycare or, when older, empty homes," he says. "The arrangements are complex and expensive."

Safety is another bonus. "The longer day keeps us from dangerous things," says Pankam. "My mom is happy because she works late and knows where I am. And she knows that I'm safe." (Just two years earlier, a few months after Edwards started operating on the expanded schedule, two students from the middle school were shot and killed near their homes, one a few days before Christmas, the other a couple of weeks later.)

Reville has seen pushback in some suburban communities. "Parents already have the out-of-school time arranged and a longer day threatens the success they've achieved in getting it all worked out," he says, citing private music lessons and tutoring.

Surprisingly, most schools have found little pushback from teachers, especially once they realize that the expanded day allows for more teacher prep time and analysis. At Edwards, students leave at 11:40 a.m. on Fridays, but teachers stay a few hours later to discuss their work and critique one another. "That doesn't happen in many places," Riley says. "They take feedback, positive and negative. It ratchets up the teaching." Last year, about 50 percent of the teaching staff opted to stay later (and get paid at their regular rate). This year, 100 percent chose to stay.

At Democracy Prep, Andrew says the longer schedule actually makes the day shorter for his teachers.

"Our teachers have four one-hour blocks of instruction a day, with three to four hours of preparation, collaboration, and grading time," he says. "That means that an efficient teacher can leave work at 5 p.m. with absolutely nothing to grade or plan at home. That formulation could redefine the teaching profession."

Of course, there are obstacles to expanding time, with money being the biggest hurdle. "We're asking schools to do more so it is inevitable it will cost more," Reville says. In Massachusetts, pilot schools are given an additional $1,300 per student -- something Reville says the state can't afford to do for all schools in this economy. Schools like Edwards are running a deficit, even with the extra money.

"I love the longer day, but it creates a cost overrun and the district can't afford that," he says. "We've had to hold a fundraiser with Keith Lockhart [conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra], and we're always looking for grants."

Even if money wasn't an issue, everyone agrees that money plus time isn't necessarily a magic recipe.

edwards_school_desk.jpg

"You can give people more money in education and more time and not necessarily get greater outcomes," says Reville. "It's important that there be strong quality control."

Andrew said that last year, Democracy Prep shared space with a traditional public school that offered extra time to select students. Unfortunately, the program wasn't well planned. "The instruction was so poor that the additional time had little effect," he says. "If all those programs do is keep kids off the street, that sets our sights far too low."

Which is why the planning that Sahni and Edmeade at Edwards talked about is so important. "Part of the problem is that the push for more time hasn't been very thoughtful," says Hess. "Proponents propose across-the-board extensions, and oh, of course we'll use the time well. But often there's a thoughtless rush to pack more minutes into an academic year without much thought to time well spent.

"I have no problem thinking an extended day is good and that adding 40 days for the arts or other enrichment activities in Roxbury is beneficial, but I'm not sure it's for all kids and all schools," he says. "So then the question is, how do we think about implications for policy and practice without a broad brush?"

In fact, no one interviewed for this story, even the most ardent expanded learning supporters, thought it would -- or should -- work in all schools, especially those in highperforming communities. "That's not the outcome I want," Gabrieli says. "That's the same old 'jam it down everyone's throat' approach that happens too often in education. This should spread by choice, and we should be engaging people at the grassroots -- students, parents, teachers, neighbors, and principals. This is a reform strategy that should be used more in education -- this strategy of not being required by everyone."

As Reville says, "I envision a time when many schools will operate on a longer day, but I also see us changing the boundaries of school to include the world of internships and afterschool opportunities. I envision a time when the boundaries of school are more fluid."