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Mixed messages on longer school day?

More time is no quick fix

BY: Michael Jonas

Longer school days lead to big gains in student achievement.  Or maybe they don’t.  It’s easy to scratch your head and wonder which is true after reading two new studies that look at the issue and come up with very different findings. The truth is it’s not that simple.

Last week, the Boston Foundation released a report suggesting one of the main reasons why Boston charter school students outperformed their peers at district schools in a 2009 study is their longer school day.  Boston charters are in session for an average of 378 more hours per year than district schools, the equivalent of an additional 62 traditional school days. Longer school days – and often a longer school year – are a hallmark of many charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independent of local districts and enjoy great autonomy over scheduling, curriculum, and teacher staffing decisions.

The report drew knowing nods from many in the education world who view longer school days as one of the key things charter schools do differently that ought to be adopted more broadly, especially at schools striving to close the achievement gap. “We need to be willing to redesign our school programs to meet the needs of students, and that does mean more time,” Mitchell Chester, the state education commissioner, told the Boston Globe’s Scot Lehigh in reaction to the study. “The traditional public schools have to be willing to open their eyes to the practices that are making a difference.”

That is exactly what a handful of Massachusetts schools have been doing through a four-year old state initiative to test longer school days in Massachusetts district schools. Today, 22 schools are part of the state’s Expanded Learning Time program, which provides an extra $1,300 per student so that schools can add 25 to 30 percent more time to their school day.  

Another new study – this one quietly tucked away on the state education department website – has looked at results of the effort to date, and the findings suggest an extended day isn’t making much of a difference. The study, carried out for the department by researchers at Abt Associates, found higher MCAS science scores for fifth graders in expanded learning time (ELT) schools than at matched comparison schools.  Apart from that, however, the report says “no other statistically significant differences were found between ELT and matched comparison schools on MCAS scores.”

One possible explanation raised by the authors is that, when it comes to time allotted to English and math, two key outcomes on which schools were compared, the ELT and matched comparison schools may not have been that different. The researchers were able to carry out interviews with administrators at a subset of 16 pairs of schools. The idea behind longer school days is to beef up core academic studies while still having time for arts and other so-called “enrichment” activities. The comparison schools, however, may have simply decided to squeeze out other subjects in favor of more core academic time, as they reported spending as much or nearly as much time on English and math instruction as did ELT schools.  Such “ELT-like practices,” write the study authors, could have diluted any observed effect of longer school days.

The findings must be disappointing for those convinced of the need for longer school days, particularly for students on the low end of the achievement curve.  Yet the study certainly doesn’t prove the folly of extending the school day, either.  The longer day at these schools “would appear to be not having a huge amount of impact at this point,” says JC Considine, a spokesman for the state education department. “But that’s the average. There are some schools that are having a pretty strong improvement and others where we aren’t seeing much at this point.”  Such a conclusion can’t be drawn from report itself, as it doesn’t report data for individual schools.

But supporters of the initiative, led by the Boston nonprofit Massachusetts 2020, which helped develop the program, have long pointed to examples of what’s possible at individual schools when committed teachers and top-notch school administrators are given more time. The Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, where 90 percent of students come from low-income households and more than a quarter enter with limited English proficiency, has made dramatic gains under the extended day initiative. The school has narrowed the gap between its students’ MCAS scores and statewide averages by two-thirds in science and more than 80 percent in English.  In math, Edwards students now outperform the state average.

“Execution is always critical,” says Chris Gabrieli, Mass. 2020’s founder.  “Policies for change have to combine, at a minimum, the three big levers of people, data, and time.” Which is another way of saying you need the right people in place and a relentless focus on using data to structure the curriculum and deliver instruction to each student in a way that takes advantage of the longer school day. 

Leaders of high-achieving charter schools almost universally believe more time makes a big difference. “It is integral to our success because it allows for the additional instruction time needed to accomplish our goals,” says William Austin, co-director of Roxbury Preparatory Charter School. The Boston school, which has an all-minority, predominantly low-income student population, outperforms 80 percent of all other middle schools in the state on the MCAS exam. On last year’s eighth-grade math test, the school ranked number one in the state, with 96 percent of its students scoring advanced or proficient. But Austin cautions that a longer day – Roxbury Prep runs from 7:45 to 4:15 – in no way guarantees such results. “Institutions and people matter,” he says. You need the “ability and the human capital” to make full use of the extra time.

So perhaps the Abt study simply reveals a shortage at ELT schools of the “ability and human capital” to make good on the promise that a longer school day holds. To test that question, Abt researchers are planning further studies that will create an index assessing how effectively the schools are implementing components of the extended day program and then examine how these scores line up with student achievement gains.

Meanwhile, state education officials are implementing performance agreements with the 22 extended-day schools, setting out clear targets for improved student outcomes and other goals. The strength of the agreements will rest on officials making it clear that the grant money will only continue flowing to schools that demonstrate that they are getting results with the added time.

There seem to be parallels here to the debate over charter schools.  There was lots of trumpeting of last year’s study of Boston charter schools as proof of the superior student achievement at charter schools. Some national studies, however, have concluded that charters do no better, on average, than traditional public schools.  How to reconcile the findings? 

Massachusetts is regarded as having one of the most stringent review processes for approving charter school proposals, and Boston has attracted a particularly dynamic group of charter school leaders and teachers.  What that all suggests is that the charter school model – with autonomy over staffing and curriculum and often with a longer school day – has features that can help deliver extraordinary results in the hands of the right people. There may simply not be enough of the right people running well-designed charter schools throughout the country.

The single biggest challenge facing education reform efforts is taking innovative practices and conditions that show remarkable results in a handful of schools and bringing them to scale.  What we’re learning is that this is incredibly hard to do well.  That’s not an argument against trying.  It means trying even harder, but with a clear understanding that a lot of ingredients are necessary for success.

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Says on 06.04.2010
at 1:17 PM
Thanks for this thoughtful report. I hope we do not measure the success of expanded learning time solely through MCAS scores in math and reading. What if, for example, the additional time allowed students to participate in music, theatre, drawing, poetry, or history. Time on those subjects may or may not translate into higher test scores. But if taught well, they will transmit lifelong skills, a love of learning, and maybe even the inspiration for a career in the arts or humanities.
Says on 05.25.2010
at 10:07 AM

Michael J, I agree with your premise. At our charter school, in Year 1, we had an extended day, and it didn't work well. The school culture wasn't tight enough yet, so we just exhausted teachers. In Year 2, we cut the hours for teachers, and brought in more volunteers. But they were hard to manage. Finally, from lots of tinkering (and failure), we ended up with the right mix of extra time, the right "human capital", and the school culture that allows more time to lead to more learning.

But per your point: if you just slap on the additional hours, it's probably not going to help.

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