When Jeffery Smith took over as superintendent in 2009, the Balsz Elementary School District in northeast Phoenix was in trouble. Enrollment was down. Students failed to meet federal and state performance standards. The state labeled two of the district's five schools as underperforming.
Balsz Elementary School District faced considerable socio-economic challenges. About 90 percent of the student population qualified for free or reduced lunch. More than half of their students are listed with English as their second language.
During Smith's tenure, district scores have skyrocketed. Reading scores are up 19 percent for third- and fourth-grade students and 43 percent for grades five and six. About 85 percent of students in sixth grade met or exceeded state and federal standards in reading.
Smith managed this feat working with the same teachers, the same students, and the same limited resources. His solution however, was surprisingly simple: The district adopted a 200-day school calendar. Classes start on July 25 and end June 8.
About 1,000 of America's 14,000 public school districts have adopted extended-learning time schedules, keeping students in class well past 3 p.m. and deep into the summer months. Extended learning time is the latest education reform aimed at closing the achievement gap and making American students more competitive globally.
Arne Duncan, U.S. education secretary, aggressively supports the reform arguing that the United States is falling behind global competitors who aren't bound by the traditional 180-day school year. "Right now children in India, children in China and other places, they're going to school, 30, 35 days more than our students. If you are on a sports team and you're practicing three days a week and the other team is practicing five days a week, who is going to win more?" he asked at a September 2011 round-table discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington-based think tank. "If we are serious about closing achievement gaps — we can't keep doing business as usual."
Data on the connection between the test scores and time in class is powerful. Independent research suggests that more time in class raises student achievement. Anecdotes abound of schools that have gone from failing to thriving simply by adopting an extended schedule. "Differences in instructional time can and do affect school performance as measured by No Child Left Behind," said Dave Marcotte, a University of Maryland professor of public policy.
But despite the encouraging results, there are issues associated with a large scale implementation of extended time learning in U.S. schools. The considerable economic and political cost of this type of reform is immense, notes Marcotte. Other critics of extended learning time say that time in class is not the problem, it is quality of instruction. "Research suggests that student achievement is dependent on the quality of instruction, not the length of the school day," said Terry Stoops, director of education at the John Locke Foundation, a North Carolina-based in dependent think tank. "Extending the school calendar without making improvements to the curriculum and teacher quality would subject students to additional hours of unproductive instruction," he said. Still, advocates of a longer school year argue that extended time learning not only delivers improved test scores, but there are cost-effective ways to implement it, including community partnerships, adaptive software, and modifying teacher contracts.
Practice makes perfect
Edwards Middle School in Boston faces immense challenges. Ninety percent of the students are minorities and the same percentage live in high poverty, meaning they come from households earning less than $23,000 per year. About 25 percent of the students have limited English skills, 30 percent are coded as special needs. In 2008 the school was failing and on the verge of being shut down.
In 2009 the school adopted an extended-learning format, adding 300 hours instructional time through a combination of a longer school day and year. The results were dramatic. In one year they raised their proficiency rate on state exams from a meager 12 percent to 60 percent of all students. Today their students currently exceed the state average in grade eight mathematics. Edwards is becoming a national model for successfully closing the achievement gap, one of the most persistent problems facing American educators.
A growing body of research provides strong evidence of a positive correlation between test scores and time in class. Dave Marcotte compared schools outcomes on state assessments in years where there were frequent school cancellations due to winter weather and of the same schools in relatively mild winters. He found that in winters with average (17 inches) snowfall the share of students testing proficient in mathematics is about 1 percent to 2 percent lower than in winters with little to no snow. He noted that for each day a school is closed, the school should expect for any given student's score to drop by one-third to one-half a percentage point.
Marcotte's work is particularly interesting because it addresses one of the biggest problems for researchers interested in measuring the impact of the length of a school year: confounding variables. "Because longer school years require greater resources, comparing a district with a long school year to one with a shorter year historically often amounted to comparing a rich school district to a poor one," said Marcotte. In these cases it is hard to say whether improved performance is a result of the longer school year or the socio-economic status of students. Because the severity of the winter is outside the control of the school, the "research design address the concern that schools with a longer school year differ from those with a shorter year," he said.
Cost of extension
Although evidence is mounting that expanding the school year will lead to learning gains, the cost to tax-payers is cause for concern. According to Marcotte, the best cost calculations come from a recent study in Minnesota where government policy analysts estimated that increasing the number of instructional days from 175 to 200 would cost about $1,000 per student.
The cost benefit analysis of extending the school year is also complicated by the fact that differences in cost exist across schools and states. "Utilities, transportation, and teacher summer-labor markets vary widely across geographic areas, and all affect the cost of extending the school year," said Marcotte. "While the benefits of extending the school year may exceed the costs in some states or school districts, they may not in others."
The costs are not just economic, there are political implications too. "Teachers have come to expect time off in the summer and have been among the most vocal opponents of extending school years in several locations," said Marcotte.
Teachers aren't the only ones accustomed to long summers. "Students and families have camps, vacations, and work schedules set up around summer vacation," said Marcotte. The Save our Summers movement, a coalition of parents and education professionals, advocates for traditional school calendars.
Save our summers argues that traditional summers are crucial for "outside-the-classroom childhood and family learning experiences," according to their website. Save our Summers also is concerned that extending the school year will have a negative impact on tourism and its accompanying tax revenue.
Cost is the most common criticism of extended-time learning. However, there are cost-effective ways of implementing this reform, according to the National Center on Time and Learning, a Boston-based non-profit that advocates for extended school calendars. "Schools that have expanded learning time have not done so because they stumbled on to unlimited resources," said Chris Gabrieli, a Boston-based education reformer and a leading advocate of an extended school calendar. "On the contrary … the schools that have adopted extended time have done so because they believe the schedule is essential for their mission, especially for highly disadvantaged students who are already behind and don't have academic support beyond the school," he said.
In an analysis of schools using an extended time model the National Center on Time and Learning found that only about half of the schools offer teachers additional compensation. "In schools with autonomy in the area of compensation, the costs of an extended time schedule are negligible," said Gabrieli. These schools simply recruit teachers willing to sign on for all the components of working at the school — including longer school hours, he explained. Other schools choose to pay teachers more my compensating with a smaller non-teaching staff. One well known example of this is the Equity Project, a New York City charter school that pays its teachers $125,000 per year but expects them to work an extended schedule and assume some administrative duties.
Other schools accomplish the goal of an extended schedule in the face of limited funding by staggering teachers hours and inviting community partners to teach classes. Brooklyn Generation School, a New York City charter that operates within the United Federation of Teachers union contract, was able to add 320 additional hours of instruction time at no additional cost, simply by shifting teachers work schedules and involving community partners to teach subjects extra curricular subjects. In this model the school is able to significantly add to students total learning time without asking more of individual teachers.
Another option is using adaptive software that allows students to learn at their own level and pace. New education software can expand and personalize learning time in ways traditional classrooms can't, said Chris Gabrieli, of National Time in Learning. Rocket Ship Education, a charter elementary system in California, as well as Khan academy are successfully harnessing the power of technology to provide personalized, extended instructional opportunities for students.