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More learning time in the classroom, summer leads to big improvements

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/Teacher-student_Thumb1.jpgThe movement to extend the school day in the hopes of improving student performance in Chicago’s public school system is off to a slow start, but the effort follows an emerging national trend of policy makers and administrators who believe American school children are not spending enough time in school.

According to a survey by the National Center for Time and Learning (NCTL), some 1000 schools in the U.S. have an expanded schedule.

In Chicago, the Longer School Day Pioneer Program is trying to catch the Windy City up with what many schools are doing — expanding the time of instruction in public schools and adding a few more days to the year. The city’s goal is to tack on 90 more minutes per day of school time, giving teachers more time to explain math sets, literacy tropes, and compositional writing rules.

More school time has its greatest impact on low-income students, since the cultural accoutrements that middle-class homes can offer to their kids are usually priced-out for most poor families. While out of school programs that promote literacy and educational engagement are effective, expanded time advocates feel schools can do their part, as well.

“A lot of it is understanding what the kids aren’t getting,” said Chris Gabrieli, chair of NCTL, in an interview with TAI. “With regard to academic instruction, there’s more time to individualize the needs of students.”

A report by NCTL released last month looked at 30 schools — eight elementary schools, 11 middle schools, and 11 high schools — from 11 different states that incorporated the concept of expanded time to improve student performance. Their average school year in hours was 1487, compared to 1170 nationally, and many schools posted double digit gains on state standardized assessments compared to nearby schools with standard school time.

The range in improved student performance was wide, with one school outpacing nearby schools by 2 percent, while others did better by over 50 percent. An Achievable Dream High School in Newport News, Virginia led the pack with the most school hours, 1680, but had only a two percent gain on surrounding schools. Still, in math and English Language Arts, over 90 percent of students were at or above proficiency.

The schools were also noted for the relatively high percentage of students deemed low-income: campuses ranged from 62 to 91 percent with pupils on free and reduced lunch — federal lunch subsidies for economically disadvantaged children.

The extra time also allows students to peel off from the rigors of the classroom — more recess comes with expanded learning time program — which helps the young learners mentally refuel. There are health benefits, too, that come with more playtime. While many schools can gain from more student time spent on the playground, Chicago’s case is unique; the city has much shorter recess and lunch periods for students, and sometimes the freetime is spent inside. From the Chicago News Cooperative:

Tracy Moran, a researcher at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school focused on early childhood development and education, said the requirements were important for young children to develop healthy lifestyles to prevent conditions like high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

The lack of recess could “certainly stunt any progress made early on,” Moran said.

There’s also debate among supporters of expanded time over whether more hours are useful during summer vacation when students are out of school for two months or more.

“We think more time is needed through out the year, but we focus on the summer due to the learning loss that occurs,” says Jeff Smink, vice president of policy at the National Summer Learning Association in Baltimore in an interview with TAI. “High poverty kids fall behind in reading and math because kids are not engaged in the summer.”

A 2007 study shows unequal access to summer learning opportunities accounts for more than half of the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income youth; that lag also contributes to a drop off in high school graduation among poorer students. Many other studies indicate increased summer enrichment programs can stanch summer learning loss for lower-income students, so much so that Sec. of Education Arne Duncan stressed the exigency of a targeted policy effort focusing resources on this demographic during an expanded learning time conference last month.

“Summer programs for kids that may or may not be in school,” said Smink. “They’re outside, they’re doing enrichment. It’s not just keeping kids in their seats for the summer.”

Programs in Baltimore and Providence take out at-risk students for boating trips, sometimes with a school instructor and an adult from a partnering group. The group activity isn’t as important as the actual period of applied instruction. Smink says the added attention is crucial because it allows students to connect concepts they learned with experiences they’re sharing with adults.

The Wallace Foundation and RAND conducted studies that showed similar, positive results.

Both the National Summer Learning Association and NTCL stress the power of engagement, agreeing the extra time can be used towards instilling a love of learning, and inviting community players to have a greater stake in the academic improvement of at-risk children.

Expanded learning time cannot take credit for everything, however. Gabrieli of NTCL told TAI, “students who show very strong value-added outcomes in 6th grade go on to generally continue to have impressively high value-added [indicators] in 7th grade and 8th again, demonstrating that they are not one-time wonder scores.

“This is evidence that success can accumulate, not proof that it always will or that expanded learning alone is responsible.”

Teachers are on board with the research, as well. In Massachusetts, a state that developed an extended learning time initiative with sound results has forged a strong relationship with union leaders to find more time in the calendar despite stretched budgets. A survey of instructors found that they view time as the most important condition for promoting learning, yet fewer than 40 percent feel they have enough time to fit in the required instruction in the standard school day.

“Teachers really get this. They just can’t get it done with out additional time, “ added Jennifer Davis, president of NCTL at a September expanded learning time seminar in Washington, D.C. “Staggered scheduling, partners coming in, teachers being given a contractual rate—there are all different innovations that are unfolding.”

She added: “The union’s right at the table with this.”

“I think the evidence of the longer day as a principle tool is quite compelling,” said Gabrieli. “There’s value in a longer year, and I do not know of compelling evidence that shows the obverse to be true.”

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