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A look into expanded time in the classroom for school children

The benefits of longer instructional time for students were put into question this week with the published results of Chicago Public School’s state standardized test scores; on the whole, students enrolled in charter schools, known for keeping pupils in the classroom longer, posted mixed results compared to non-turnaround traditional public schools.

Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) scores for the two categories of schools increased slightly compared to last year, though gains were similar. While the traditional, or neighborhood, schools improved to 15.3 percent in students exceeding state standards on the ISAT, charter pupils were at 13.8 percent — good for a jump by two percentage points each. Charter schools hold a slight advantage in percentage of students who meet state standards: 75 percent to 72.8 percent.

The inconclusive gains could hinder one of the major education policy discussions the city plans to have with teachers unions. Earlier in June, Democratic Governor Pat Quinn signed into law a bill that, among other things, permits administrators to extend school days. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has let it be known he would use the new legislation in retooling instructional time in the city.

Studies tend to draw an incomplete relationship between test scores and longer school days. A May editorial in the Los Angeles Times pointed to a 2009 study by the Center for Education Policy at the University of Southern Maine that found numerous advantages to four-day school weeks but with longer hours. Transportation and energy costs were trimmed due to less operating time, budgets were spared slightly from a decline in substitute teacher expenditures, students were less likely to be absent and graduation rates jumped. But districts that experimented with the shorter school week were mostly rural.

A comparative study (PDF) found a limited correlation between instructional time in various countries and results on the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The draft report, prepared by researchers at Hebrew University and University of London, showed Sweden, with 7.7 hours per week of instructional time for students in math, reading and science, scored a 505.4 average. In contrast, Denmark dedicated 11.5 hours of instructional time and posted an average result of 500.5. Canada, at 11.3 hours, scored an average of 517.5. The study also compared results for Eastern European and developing world countries.

Jennifer Cohen, a senior policy analyst with the education policy program at the New America Foundation, wonders whether instructional time should be viewed only through the lens of test scores. “I would like to see a study that focuses on high school completion or a more realistic measure of school success than test scores when assessing the impact of hours of instruction,” she wrote in an email to The American Independent.

Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time Initiative

Massachusetts 2020, an education organization, advocates for expanded instructional time with a focus not only on the core subjects, but on the arts and humanities as well. Mass2020 has secured $14 million to implement Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time (ELT) Initiative, a public policy program that funds school efforts to keep more students in the classroom longer. The project has grown since 2005 to now include over 10,000 students and 19 schools.

One of its co-founders, Jennifer Davis, a former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, told TAI instructional standards in schools need to be improved, particularly for lower-income students, to keep the U.S. globally competitive.

“Proficiency in the three ‘Rs’ is just not sufficient. Students need opportunities to experiment with hands-on science, think creatively and learn through the arts, understand history and civics and participate in real world apprenticeships,” she said. “That’s why it’s so encouraging to see the expansion of learning time in districts and schools across the country.”

The ELT Initiative enlists schools to add 300 hours of instructional time over the course of a year, with administrators deciding whether that means more time added each day or more days spent in the classroom. State funding is distributed through a competitive process that includes specific proposals on how new curricula will improve core academics, enrichment opportunities, and teacher professional development.

Results have been positive. Looking at the state’s standardized test for last year, students in ELT programs [scored higher](http://www.mass2020.org/files/file/2011%20MA%20Update(1).pdf) (PDF) in math, language arts and science. Low-income students particularly excelled in 2010, with double the number of ELT schools posting “high growth” results than non-ELT schools. All of the ELT-participating schools have at least 50 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch, meaning their families’ incomes do not exceed 185 percent of the poverty line.

To Don Whittinghill, an analyst with the Louisiana School Board Association, offering extended instructional time can be helpful for young students, but he also warns against placing too much of an emphasis on core subjects. “If we focus so much on math and English, and we don’t give [students] a perspective on living in the world, understanding a family, how society is structured,” Whittinghill begins, “then you’re producing kids going to college who aren’t well rounded enough to function independently.”

The results to this year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) U.S. History test add meat to his prognostication. Scores remained relatively flat across the board for fourth- and 12th-graders, and while eighth-graders improved, only 17 percent were rated “proficient” or higher. Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education who has recently ramped up her support for teachers unions and anti-charter school movements, said in a statement those slight gains “reflect an improvement in reading skills, not an improvement in knowledge of history.”

Expanded time shows promise in New Orleans

At the controversial Recovery School District in New Orleans — a system of schools that took control of many classrooms following Hurricane Katrina and has been marked with persistently low state test results since — the extended hours are one of the few commendable spending decisions the district has made, says Whittinghill. “Longer hours are good for early grade levels, particularly for at-risk students who need help in fundamentals,” he says. “But as they get older, at the fifth grade and onward, you should take some of the emphasis off math and reading and focus on civics, social living, entrepreneurship, etc.”

He concedes extended classroom time and remedial summer programs can account for the jump in RSD state test scores. Yet he doesn’t believe RSD is doing anything innovative in the classroom, especially so given RSD is replacing certified teachers with hundreds of Teach for America educators who receive limited training in managing unruly students — a problem for a district with a majority of its children considered low income.

Whittinghill stresses early education is perhaps more important. He spoke favorably of the state’s LA4 program, a pre-kindergarten education model launched in 2002. Students who participated in LA4 outperformed those who didn’t on the state standardized Integrated Louisiana Educational Assessment Program exams.

“But the charter schools, despite their advantages in funding, are asking the state for waivers, Whittinghill says. “[They] are bailing on early education.”

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