Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made "extended learning time" a political catch-phrase, listing it as a top turnaround strategy across federal programs from Race to the Top to the School Improvement Fund.
"We know 180 six-and-a-half-hour days just aren't enough," Kelly Stuart of the Education Department's Doing What Works site told state directors of federal Title I poverty education programs at their annual meeting in Washington, D.C., this week.
State officials and learning time experts at the meeting noted that more states and districts are starting to explore instructional time in the second year of implementing school improvement grants. Yet it's not clear whether or how that will equate to more meaningful learning time.
In studying school improvement efforts across the country, Ben Lummis of the National Center on Time and Learning said it generally takes an increase of 300 hours of additional time each year to make a real difference for students. Moreover, among about 40 schools the center has studied, those most effective in expanding learning time ensure it affects all students, not just a few, and is balanced among core academics, enrichment activities, and teacher collaboration and planning time.
The center found that changing time without having a larger plan—such as a high school that adds five minutes to each class or an elementary school that adds an after-school program without advertising it—often falls flat.
"Avoid the Christmas tree effect—just adding more things," Lummis said. "Don't do more things; reach for your academic goals in a deeper and more meaningful way."
He noted that few districts work with researchers to audit their existing time use before planning more learning time, which makes it difficult to tell what will change and how to measure the effectiveness of a new schedule. Oklahoma, for example, now requires all its schools to conduct a "quality time analysis." The 2008-09 statewide analysis found that schools only used about three-quarters of their time for instruction, as opposed to class transitions, recess, and other things. Some schools had little more than a half-hour of actual learning time per day.
"Some schools say they have a focus on literacy, and then they figure out they are only spending 10 percent of their time on literacy instruction," Lummis said. "There's a lot of lost time in anyone's work day, but particularly in schools."
Lummis and Stuart highlighted several schools nationwide that have greatly increased instructional time without changing the total cost of schooling, often by staggering teacher schedules throughout the day or year to ensure students get a longer instructional block without requiring teachers to work longer hours. Brooklyn Generation School in New York, for example, staggers four sets of teachers throughout the school year to create a schedule of 200 seven-hour days, with class sizes below 18 students and more teacher training time. Similarly, Fort Logan Elementary School in Sheridan, Colo., uses a "second shift" of teachers to add more than an hour to each school day.
It will be interesting to see how well these more flexible scheduling models play out over time, and whether schools can translate more instructional time into better student performance.