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Chicago Test Scores: Mixed Results for Longer School Days

Under pressure to improve academic outcomes and turn around underperforming schools, more districts may be considering using a change in the school calendar as a strategy for school improvement. Yet as seen with the release of test scores in the Chicago Public Schools, the results continue to be mixed.

You may remember that this past school year Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel offered financial incentives to elementary schools that lengthened their school days. Schools that moved to at least 7-hour days (up from 5 and three-quarters hours) in September 2011 received $150,000; those that switched in January 2012 received half that amount. The pilot project (expected to move to more schools this year) was a source of heavy debate between the district, teachers, and parents.

According to recent news, on average, Chicago schools that switched to a longer school year showed more improvement than the district as a whole, but when diced down to specifics, the results were inconsistent.

On the whole, the district's test scores rose by the smallest margin since 2005, on average by 0.9 percentage points, while schools that lengthened the day last September rose seven times that, on average. (Schools that started longer days in January were 2.5 percent points higher than the district average.) Yet not all schools with longer days improved performance, with some actually performing worse than the year before and some just remaining stagnant.

According to district officials while the results are "promising," they cannot yet link longer school days to improved academic performance.

Of note, in the past year alone, increasing attention has been paid to ELT; on the federal side alone, states were allowed to include expanded learning time as a strategy listed in their No Child Behind Waivers as a way to reform their schools. According to the Afterschool Alliance, as of this week, 20 out of 32 states who will receive waivers have checked a box that will allow them to use their 21st Century Community Learning Center funding to lengthen the school calendar.

Expanded learning time can mean longer school days, a longer school year, or in some cases, an overall restructuring of how time is spent in school in addition to a change in how time away from school is scheduled and distributed. Some using this strategy are individual pilot schools, like a school in Denver, or in other cases, entire districts, such as some in North Carolina, which just recently went back to school. Typically, targeted schools and students are disadvantaged and time, if used well, is seen as a way to close the achievement gap.

As reported many times on this blog, the debate over ELT best practices, not to mention the reform itself, remain debated, with most ELT proponents stating it's 'not about the time itself, but how the time is used.' This refrain seems to be echoing in Chicago, since some schools that added no additional time saw significant improvements this year, whereas others did not. Additionally, while not discussed in the Chicago debate, the "test score" marker is not the sole focus of many schools that are using ELT as a strategy, as many see the added time as a way to improve social and long-term student outcomes, as well as to academic performance.

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