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Forum Explores Best Uses of Expanded Learning Time

I spent the last two days immersed in a forum on expanded learning time where leading policymakers and educators discussed how after-school hours, the summer months, and the school day itself could be restructured and revaluated to make learning more engaging and help close the achievement gap.

The event, "Reimagining the School Day: A Forum on More Time for Learning," was sponsored by The Wallace Foundation and held here in Washington. As I mentioned the other day, there has been an increasing effort at the federal, state, and local levels to reevaluate how much time our students spend in and out of school and how they spend that time.

Throughout the conference, speakers and participants emphasized that strengthening accountability, improving data tracking, and building community partnerships and sustainability were fundamental to developing expanded learning time programs, but that there wasn't a definitive answer for how to add time to deliver better education.

"Time 'well-used' can make a difference, but what does 'well-used' actually mean, and how do we segregate it without it being an experiment?" Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville asked one panel of participants.

Reville said that the time itself is not enough to produce results and that educators need to ensure they have more evaluation mechanisms in place before simply adding more time to the school calendar. Too much experimentation could lead to money spent for great variability in caliber and effectiveness of new education models, he said.

But speakers Sue Bodilly, research director at the Association of American Medical Colleges and former director of RAND Education, and Elena Silva, senior policy analyst with Education Sector, said that experimentation was part of the process.

For the most part, they said, imagining time in new ways means developing enriching and engaging programming that builds academic skills and supports "whole child development," not adding more of the same "drill and kill" found in the standard day. In most cases, the models will vary depending on site needs.

Yet, panelist Mary Ronan, superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools, said sometimes the practical and logistical concerns on the ground level are actually more of an impediment than how to redesign time spent in school or in out-of-school-time programs. Ronan discussed her Fifth Quarter program, which I wrote about the other day. It added a month to the school year for 16 underperforming schools in Cincinnati, with a combination of core academics and academic enrichment.

"If I could wave a magic wand, my whole school year would look like our Fifth Quarter program," said Ronan. "But we [currently] have a model we cannot afford and we cannot sustain that won't give us the results we need to get." Ronan stressed that while the community was supportive of such programs, budget cuts and federal accountability requirements through standardized testing made implementation and sustainability extremely challenging.

Moving forward, I'll be continuing reflections on The Wallace forum and expanded learning time.

[Disclosure: The Wallace Foundation also provides grant support for Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week.]

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