Blog: The Educated Reporter

Expanded Learning Time: Three Stories To Steal

Earlier I shared “10 Questions to Ask” about expanded learning time. Today, I’m giving you three story ideas to steal. As with any education topic, it’s a good idea to start with the definition. The Glossary of Education Reform has a helpful explanation of expanded (sometimes called “extended”) learning time, and the different forms it can take.

Sometimes it means a longer school day; in other cases it’s delivered before or after the traditional academic calendar ends – in early mornings, evenings, weekends or in the summer.

You should also familiarize yourself with the research. One thing to keep in mind: While the outcomes for expanded learning time programs are something of a mixed bag, we know that when it comes to effectiveness, the quality of the program is paramount. (Take a look at a 2012 report by Child Trends, which examined the evidence base and drew some valuable conclusions.)

The Education Commission of the States can help you determine how your district compares against others nationally when it comes to instructional time. The National Center on Time and Learning also tracks the latest research, and has joined forces with The Ford Foundation to examine more and better learning time. If you’re looking for examples of expanded learning time initiatives that appear to be fruitful, check out The Wallace Foundation’s 2013 report, which profiled five programs gaining ground through expanded learning for students.

Expanded learning time can be expensive. To qualify for waivers from some of the more demanding provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, states had to agree to add instructional minutes for students. Is your state one of the more than 35 to receive a waiver already? What plans are in place to use those federal dollars to support expanded learning time? If your school district is relying on outside funding and support, take a look at the Strive Together network in Ohio-Kentucky, the national nonprofit Communities in Schools, and Say Yes to Education’s long-range efforts (particularly in Syracuse, N.Y.) as examples of strong public-private partnerships.

To develop my story list, I spoke with reporters with experience covering expanded learning time. I also reached out to experts at some of the nonprofit organizations providing extended learning time opportunities to students across the country: Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of the National Center on Time & Learning; Lucy Friedman of The After School Corporation (serving students in Baltimore, New Orleans and New York City); Lynsey Wood Jeffries, national chief executive officer of Higher Achievement (providing programs in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.); Dara Rose, a program officer with The Wallace Foundation; and Chris Smith (executive director) and Louise Harland (deputy director) of Boston After School & Beyond.

1. Longer Days, Better Learning? What’s it like for students to spend more time learning? Are added minutes really changing the day-to-day school experience? Consider shadowing a student for a week, and then keeping tabs on her throughout the academic year. Do extra minutes mean students have opportunities for extracurricular enrichment such as music or art, or are they spending their time doing worksheets and drills? How much opportunity is there for small group interactions with instructors? How is the longer instructional calendar affecting family life? Do parents have to adjust their schedules to accommodate the added time? Are “regular” classroom teachers consulting with expanded learning time providers? Are they sharing student data and setting common goals? In New York City, the nonprofit expanded-learning-time provider Citizen Schools coordinates with campus administrators to make sure the instruction students receive after school reinforces the Common Core-aligned content being taught during the regular academic day.

2. Who’s in Charge? When it comes to expanded learning time, we know the quality of instruction matters just as much as it does during the traditional academic schedule. Who is delivering instruction during the expanded learning time, if it’s not regular classroom teachers? What credentials and/or training is required of them, and how are they evaluated? What coordination is there between regular classroom teachers and expanded learning instructors to ensure individual students are getting programs and services tailored to their needs? What training are teachers receiving at schools with expanded learning time? Are teachers encouraged to try new approaches or are they simply using the same pedagogical approach over a longer period? Are teachers given options for participating, such as signing up to teach winter holiday sessions or summer school? How are schools enticing their most effective teachers to sign on? (The American Federation of Teachers is paying close attention to these questions, and investing its own resources in supporting expanded learning time.)

3. Stopping Summer Learning Loss: While summer vacation is a long-standing tradition in the nation’s public schools, there’s a significant trade-off for the three months of leisure: On average, students will return to campus in the fall a month behind where they performed in the spring. And the learning loss is even greater for low-income students who were already behind their more affluent peers. What programs are currently in place in your district to prevent these declines, and whom do they target? How are they paid for, and what accountability measures are in place to determine their effectiveness? Is the emphasis on remedial students? What opportunities exist for gifted students, English-language learners, or special education students? Are there opportunities for teachers, as well as students, to continue learning? The Boston Summer Learning Project, overseen by Boston Afterschool & Beyond, gave teachers the opportunity to explore new instructional techniques, confer with their peers, and get up to speed on new content – all outside the higher-stress framework of the typical academic calendar. In Florida, summer sessions are used to help both students and teachers get up to speed on the new Common Core State Standards. A good resource to consider is the National Summer Learning Association, as well as The National Center on Time and Learning.