So what if your gift for the holidays were an unusual one? What if it were more time? That was precisely the gift presented last Monday to an estimated 19,500 K-12 students and their parents by a coalition of state and district policy makers and funders. The coalition, which includes select districts in the states of Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee, is partnering with the National Center for Time and Learning (NCTL) and the Ford Foundation to re-design and lengthen school schedules in a pilot group of under performing schools. Click here to listen to a National Public Radio story on the initiative. The idea of extending the school day is not a new one, and on its face makes all kinds of sense. A longer school day could help working parents align the school and work day and help keep kids safe, supervised and engaged. It could allow more time for kids who have fallen behind in school to catch up: as noted in the Center’s High Impact Philanthropy to Improve Teaching Quality, many successful charter and district-led whole-school reform models that focus on at-risk kids have embraced a longer school day and year for that reason. And at least theoretically, a longer school day could allow teachers more time for lesson planning and collaboration, two areas in which teachers routinely say they lack time. So if extending the school day at least for struggling schools and students is such a no-brainer, why haven’t more schools and districts done so? Two words: cost benefit. Extending school time within most districts’ existing operating and human resource structures can be hugely costly.
Moreover, it is important that the motto of the extended time coalition is “more and better” time: the research evidence suggests that simply adding more time is not necessarily enough to improve student outcomes- it depends on how that time is used.
Donors can help solve the time conundrum by supporting the development, testing, and implementation of models that demonstrate how to realize the potential benefits of an extended school day at a reasonable cost. Some already exist: for example, many charter school models (we profiled Green Dot and mention others in our teaching quality report (page 47) the Generation Schools (page 53) model, as well as several others being developed and piloted with the support of Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture initiative. Partnerships with non-profit and community-based organizations such as Citizen Schools can also help provide educational opportunities in the context of an extended school day without requiring more classroom time from regular staff. Finally, the new NCTL and Ford Foundation led initiative should provide a rich source of ideas and models for future investment, both public and private. For disadvantaged students, more and better learning time is critical to student success. In that respect, giving the gift of time is truly one of those gifts that keeps on giving.