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Q&A: Status Quo Biggest Obstacle to School Change, Says Learning-Time Expert

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More than 20 years after a federal commission warned that clinging to the century-old model of a six-hour school day and 180-day school year is "a recipe for a kind of slow-motion social suicide," the school-improvement concept of lengthening the school day and year is beginning to take root. Jennifer Davis, the president of the National Center on Time and Learning, has been at the forefront of the movement. 

In the letter to members of Congress accompanying that 1994 report, titled "Prisoners of Time," the National Commission on Time and Learning wrote: "Time is the missing element in our great national debate about learning and the need for higher standards for all students." 

As deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education at the time, Davis had become convinced that underserved students in particular would not be able to catch up to their better-off peers or meet the rising academic standards without a restructuring of the school day to provide more time and support.

On average, U.S. students spend less time learning core academic subjects than their counterparts in other industrialized countries. In math alone, they lag behind Korea, Hong Kong, Taipei, Denmark, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic, among others, according to a 2011 report from the Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which promotes economic, educational and social equity policies around the world.

In 2000, Davis co-founded Massachusetts 2020 to lengthen the school calendar in the state's schools. Seven years later, the organization went national as the National Center on Time and Learning (NCTL), with Davis as president. Her work coincided with similar efforts to close the opportunity gap between students in low- and high-income communities, including the expansion of the Harlem Children's Zone, the U.S. Department of Education's Promise Neighborhood program and a surge in the community schools movement.

Charter schools were among the first to blow up the traditional school calendar, which was rooted in an agricultural economy in which children were needed during planting and harvesting seasons to work on their families' farms.

More recently, the number of traditional public schools moving to longer days has overtaken charters. In total, more than one million students now attend school for at least 7 hours a day; nearly twice as many as in 2012, according to a recent NCTL report, which we wrote about here

Education Week sat down with Davis at the Education Writers Association national seminar in Chicago recently to get her thoughts and ideas on the future of expanded learning time in U.S. schools and what it will take to get there. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Jennifer Davis #2 at EWA.jpg

EW:  How has the political and social landscape around expanded learning time changed in recent years?

DAVIS:  There's more of a focus on what our students need to succeed in this economy. 

This idea of more time for learning has become almost a given in education reform conversations across the states, with the Obama administration truly taking the idea of expanded learning time and embracing it as part of the school turnaround model.

Some of the other policy shifts that are happening is a huge expansion of charter schools. Many of the charter schools in America have more time for learning as part of their school design.

More recently, [in] the more aggressive takeovers of districts and schools that are happening through policy at the state, federal, and local level, most of those schools are being reconstituted with more time for learning as part of their new school design.

EW: What are the challenges to implementing expanded learning?

DAVIS: One of the biggest challenges we face in America is the status quo. We've gotten too used to the way schools have always been. They've always been 180 days, they've always been roughly 6-and-a-half hours.  We're asking educators, we're asking parents, and we're asking community leaders to step back and say, "Okay, that may have worked 100 years ago, but it doesn't work any longer, let's think together about how we can create a school system that better meets the needs of today's kids."

Secondly, you have some concrete barriers around union contracts, around bus transportation times, around making sure the logistics are lined up around a whole array of things like that, compensation and so forth. But we know, because we've doubled the number of schools and districts with more time within the last two years, we know those barriers can be overcome.

This is not an easy endeavor. You really need to be thoughtful about it and you really need to engage the schools in the process of rethinking not only that added hour, but the entire school day, the entire school year, and step back and say, "OK, what does our data say? What are our kids getting and what do our kids need that they're not getting, whether it be around social-emotional learning, whether it be around enrichments or whether it be more individualized support in academic areas."

The opportunity gap has widened more than ever in the last number of years and that's really troubling because so much focus has been on improving the nuts and bolts of schooling. But even if we get that right, that's not going to be enough for our kids to succeed. We have to think of schooling differently. We have to create great schools that not only do well in English language arts, math and science, but also expose kids to broader experiences—robotics, music, arts, and a whole array of other experiences that best position them for college and the future.

Let's create a new school design that better meets the needs of our students, but also our faculty. Our teachers need more time, more time to collaborate, more time to learn together, and more time to observe each other. The pressure on teachers today is more than ever in history; they need more time to learn together and to strengthen their skills.

EW:  What will it take to propel expanded learning from a reform model being tried at a few thousand schools to becoming the new norm?

DAVIS:  We need to invest more in our highest-need children if we really want an economy that's going to prosper, if we want to have fewer kids in prisons that are very expensive and if we want to have a society that really thrives. Additional investments, particularly in those states that aren't investing very much per pupil, is important.

Flexibility around staffing and scheduling is very important because we want to create unique models that also incorporate community resources and community partners into a new school design so that students are getting more caring adults in their lives. In some of the schools that we work with, kids leave in the middle of the day and they [go] to the Boys and Girls Club to go swimming and participate in a variety of athletic activities and they [return] to their school and stay until after 4 o'clock.  But they're not just in drill-and-kill learning for the entire time; they're in a variety of engaging and enriching opportunities in addition to their academic support classes.

The districts that are really succeeding have become major advocates for this work. They've been advocates for more state dollars to help support the work, and that's one of the reasons why we're seeing it grow.  When you have big city mayors in Chicago, and now New York and Boston all calling for more time for learning that's a huge precedent that we think we're going to see more and more leaders embrace.

Photo: Jennifer Davis speaking at the National Education Writers Association annual meeting in Chicago, April 2015. (Kathryn Baron/Education Week) 

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