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Longer school day? How five states are trying to change education

Five state are participating in a pilot project designed to recast and improve education in low-income communities by leveraging a longer school day or year in innovative ways.

Starting next year, students in 40 public schools in five states will be spending significantly more time in school. 

Massachusetts, New YorkConnecticutColorado, andTennessee are all taking part in a pilot project in which select schools – particularly those that serve low-income communities – add at least 300 hours to the school year, whether through a lengthened school day or a longer school year. 

It’s a comprehensive effort involving state and federal governments, community organizations, teachers unions, and private groups. 

But what, exactly, will students learn? 

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Most research, say education experts, shows that simply having students spend more time in school means little. 

Part of what’s key about this new project, however, is not just lengthening the school day or year, but doing it in innovative ways that could reshape the structure of the school day, and how teachers and students think about learning. 

“If you’re looking just at an extended school day, it’s hard to figure out what if any impact it has,” says Robert Stonehill, managing director at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, which has done significant work on expanded-learning programs. “But if you look at the real quality programs, that’s a different story.”

So far, Mr. Stonehill says, the backers of the new five-state initiative – called the TIME Collaborative – are emphasizing the sort of innovative solutions that do make a difference. “They’re pushing all the right buttons,” he says. 

The 11 districts taking part in the initiative will have a year to plan. Their plans will all be different, but backers of the program expect them to adhere to some basic principles and hope that the new schedules will involve a rethinking of what’s possible. 

For example, teachers might start staggered schedules. Schools might explore both traditional and computer-mediated learning. Students might get more time for internships or project-based opportunities. Teachers should gain time for collaboration and planning. 

The models for this program “are quite different from what you’ve seen historically,” says Jennifer Davis, president and cofounder of the National Center on Time & Learning (NCTL), which is a part of the effort.

Traditional “after-school” community programs will no longer necessarily be after school, she notes.

Some of the additional time may be more personalized academic time, but some will also be enrichment opportunities like music, art, robotics, or sports, adds Jeannie Oakes, director of educational opportunity and scholarship programs at the Ford Foundation.

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She and others also emphasize a safety component: for many students, the most dangerous hours of the day are between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., when kids are out of school, don’t have good programming, and parents are busy at work.

NCTL and the Ford Foundation are providing money and technical expertise to the districts, and both the federal and state governments are also providing funds. But those involved say they hope the plans can be cost-efficient, providing a model for how students in traditional public schools and from low-income neighborhoods can get access to the sort of enrichment opportunities that many middle-class and affluent students routinely get. 

“You can have an eight-hour student day that doesn’t mean you need an eight-hour teacher day,” says Davis. “We know it can be done very cost-effectively, but you have to be creative.” 

Even some advocates have concerns, though. 

“This initiative is about scaling [these ideas] – starting small but going big pretty quickly,” says Elena Silva, a senior associate at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “We have a secretary of education who’s committed to this and to doing it quickly…. But in an effort to do things quickly and scale things quickly, we can oftentimes lose big opportunities to learn and do it right.” 

Moreover, says Ms. Silva, she’s concerned that all the packaging and PR around the initiative is just focusing on the increased time aspect of it. 

“This is about redesigning and rethinking the way we educate kids,” says Silva. “So time has to be a part of that, but it’s an issue that has a lot of different factors…. I get that we need a hook, and we found one, it’s time. But my biggest concern is that ‘time’ is the hook, and ‘time’ is the lead. Is it also the way we measure success?” 

That’s not the intention, says Ms. Oakes of the Ford Foundation. 

At its heart, this initiative is about helping states to make fundamental changes that they might be hesitant to make on their own – and seeing how programs that have been successful in charter and alternative schools might be brought into regular public schools, says Oakes. 

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To evaluate the program’s success, Oakes says, “we’ll have to think beyond measures of standardized test scores.” 

Right now, she says, Ford and NCTL are working to develop indicators.

“We’re really hoping that this will help people see that yes, you really can do this,” Oakes says.