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Underperforming MPS schools try longer days; experts say success will depend on how the extra time is spent

This year, the school day at some of the worst-performing Minneapolis Public Schools is an hour longer than it has been in the past. In terms of beating the achievement gap, will that extra hour make a difference? The answer, according to the educators who oversaw the change, is a resounding maybe.

One of the things schools that beat the odds — where impoverished students excel academically — have in common is longer school days or longer years. Used properly and by talented instructors, the extra “seat time” can help students who are lagging even years behind catch up.

At the high-profile KIPP charter schools, for example, classes can go from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and at Hiawatha Leadership Academy, one of several Minneapolis charters that posted impressive test results last year, kids are in school 40 percent more hours

The best of the best use at least some of this extra time for ongoing testing to figure out what basic skills struggling students haven’t mastered and engaging in a kind of reverse engineering to plug the gaps. Because this process is different for every single child, it’s incredibly time consuming.

In any given class, typically two-thirds of students get a lesson the way it’s taught the first time. Lacking that particular building block, the other third typically just falls further and further behind. If teachers can identify gaps, however, kids can “scaffold up” fairly rapidly.

But because more seat time translates into longer workdays for teachers, adding hours at mainline public schools has been problematic. Teasing this conundrum apart has been one of the flashpoints pitting reformers against teachers’ unions in lots of urban school districts in recent years.

Teachers’ unions are taking a terrible drubbing in the public arena right now, but this particular problem doesn’t boil neatly down to laziness, stubbornness about work rules or ideological gamesmanship. Longer days require more flexible hours, certainly, but they also cost more and many districts are currently spiraling into the red.

How much more? A recent Minnesota study found that “increasing the number of instructional days from 175 to 200 would cost close to $1,000 per student, in a state where the median per-pupil expenditure is about $9,000,” according to Education Next.

The Education Next article is one of several resources supplied by the school-improvement network Charter School Partners, which helped design Hiawatha’s longer day. The wonks among you can dive in deeper here and here.

The gist for the rest of us: Research has not yet studied longer days vs. longer years, and more time on task isn’t necessarily helpful; how schools use that time is crucial. 

Politics and logistics aside, more seat time is now a requirement for underachieving schools that are receiving federal “turnaround” funds. As a result, six Minneapolis schools deemed “persistent underperformers” have added seat time: Bethune, Lucy Laney, Edison and Wellstone International have longer days; Broadway High School has a year-round schedule; and Hmong International has extra after-school academic programming.

How much difference can one hour make? At nine hours, KIPP’s day is more than three hours longer than MPS’ typical school day, and more than two longer than the new day at the turnaround schools. How much extra seat time does a student need to make meaningful progress?

As MPS’ Director of Strategic Planning, Eric Molho oversees the district’s school turnaround efforts. More time, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily helpful, in his opinion.

“The quality of instruction is what matters,” he said. “If you have a great teacher who is able to engage students, an extra hour is meaningful.”

Instead of using the federal turnaround money to pay teachers for longer days, MPS is using it to staff schools with retired teachers, reading and math coaches, paraprofessionals and other adults who will engage, essentially, in the aforementioned scaffolding.

The particulars are being worked out by each school, none of which will have enough money for one-on-one skill-building, Molho explained. Instead, most students will likely receive some form of differentiated instruction in small groups.

Teachers will still be working longer days, but at their collective request they will use the extra time to analyze student performance data and to design lessons to reach struggling kids. Unlike in years past, they will do this in teams; the same data that suggests kids can scaffold up also says teachers help them best when they work in professional learning communities.

Molho is quick to admit that adding an hour to the school day wouldn’t have been the first reform he asked for. He wonders, for instance, if a longer year wouldn’t be more effective because it would reduce summer slippage.

But it made sense to take the federal grant and see what could be accomplished, he said. Depending on how things go, MPS might tinker with the seat-time formula for future years.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/07/2010 - 03:49 pm.

    First, schools don’t “underperform” – or succeed, for that matter. It’s the STUDENTS who underperform or succeed or are overachievers or sluggards, or are just normal kids.

    Second, it’s not the teachers. Good teachers have been shown to make a difference, but not every sculptor is Michelangelo, and it’s not reasonable to expect every teacher to be Helen Keller’s “Miracle Worker.” A recent study showed that, even when there was a $15,000 bonus on the line, student achievement – with the caveat that it was measured by the ubiquitous and misleading standardized tests – did not change much. Kids with “bonus” teachers did about as well, or as poorly, as kids whose teachers did NOT get the bonus.

    Third, having worked many a “longer school day” over my career, I have to side with Eric Molho on two points. To begin with, a longer day doesn’t necessarily translate into a more EFFECTIVE day. It depends upon how that extra hour is spent, and with whom. KIPP schools likely do not dismiss students early from class, for example, to spend 3 hours exhausting themselves at football practice. Beyond that, a longer day, while politically easier, doesn’t seem to me, speaking as someone with 30 years of classroom experience, to be nearly as potentially effective as a longer school year. Politically, the longer year is much more difficult to implement because there are competing economic interests – tourist-based businesses, for example, want the biggest pool of inexperienced, low-wage labor they can get. A longer school year would likely intrude upon the traditional tourist season. The fact that the countries beating our brains out in so many fields ALL have longer school years, some in combination with longer school days, apparently counts for little in that context, despite lots of posturing by politicians.

    Fourth, even if we continue to pay the genteel poverty-level wages currently the norm for teachers, individual time and attention are expensive, and for that one-third of the class that doesn’t “get” the lesson in normal fashion, I don’t see any indication on the political horizon that an aging general public will be willing to pay the sizable tax burden necessary to fund the kind of individual tutoring and help that’s implied by that one-third of the class. Multiplied by hundreds of schools in dozens of school districts, the bill to pay for individual attention on that scale will be enormous. Paying the bill will require considerable political will AND political skill, and I don’t see either of those qualities at present in any sort of abundance.

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