This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Research about efforts to expand learning time is clear on one point: Low-income, low-achieving students of color benefit the most from spending more time in high-quality, regulated activities beyond traditional school hours.
At a typical public school that is open 180 days per year for six-and-a-half hours, students are spending only 20 percent of their total waking hours in school. That fact underlies the call for more structured learning time.
“Both research and practice indicate that adding time can have a meaningfully positive impact on student proficiency and, indeed, upon a child’s entire educational experience,” wrote David Farbman, senior researcher at the National Center on Time and Learning.
Reams of studies about afterschool activities find that students, especially disadvantaged students, who regularly participate in exemplary programs do better on a whole host of outcomes – from higher graduation rates and test scores to less likelihood of getting in trouble to better nutrition and fitness levels.
These programs can involve almost anything, but often include sports, leadership development, and the arts.
While most don’t explicitly target academics, they can and often do lead to academic improvements, said Nancy Peter, director of the Out-of-School Time Resource Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Kids benefit from out-of-school activities that don’t replicate the school day,” she said. “There is a ton of research connecting quality out-of-school time and whatever the desired outcome is.”
According to a report called “Promising Afterschool Programs” from the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, “disadvantaged elementary and middle school students who regularly attend high-quality afterschool for at least two years are academically further ahead of peers who spend more out-of-school time in unsupervised activities.” The benefits also included better outcomes on social and behavioral indicators.
An outdated calendar
For a long time it has been understood that the traditional school calendar, giving students late afternoons and whole summers off, is archaic and no longer meets educational or societal needs.
“If the United States is to grasp the larger education ambitions for which it is reaching, we must strike the shackles of time from our schools,” said the National Education Commission on Time and Learning back in 1994.
But today there is some disagreement about what kinds of activities are best. Is it better to extend the school day or expand out-of-school programming? Be explicitly academic or something else? Mandatory or voluntary? In the school or at another location? Run by a community partner or by the school?
The research hasn’t yet provided definitive evidence that one approach is better than the other.
“There’s a dialogue between those that endorse out-of-school time vs. those that endorse expanded learning time,” said Peter, who believes that extra time should look different from school time.
While the goals of the expanded learning time proponents and the out-of-school time people are similar – better outcomes for kids – there are differences in focus and emphasis.
Expanded learning time advocates want to keep kids in school, although most want to use the time for enrichment and different kinds of activities, not just for longer class periods and more drill in the basics. But their focus is on academics. Often their goals explicitly relate to outcomes such as higher test scores, closing the achievement gap, and college-readiness. Extended-day programs offered here under former Superintendents Arlene Ackerman and Paul Vallas fit this mold.
“Then there are the rest of us who still believe that out-of-school time should be connected to school day but should stay separate,” said Peter. “There is only so much you can do in a school day. Out-of-school-time programs have a lot of goals in addition to academic achievement. And different kids thrive in different environments.”
Proponents of these programs have broader aims, such as reducing risky behaviors, fostering relationships with caring adults, promoting health and fitness, increasing civic engagement, and developing youth leadership. Achieving them often has the added benefit of boosting academic achievement.
Because there is such a wide variety of programs, the research on this approach tends to be anecdotal – following individual kids – or using city statistics to compare graduation rates for students who attended a given program with similar students who did not. But it is hard to attribute an outcome solely to participation in a program.
At the same time, said Peter, “There is certainly research that speaks to a broader sense that kids who don’t do well in school can thrive in an afterschool environment.”
Out of school or in school?
Recently, there has been more research on extended-day and extended-year offerings as a growing number of schools, mostly charters, base their academic programming on longer days and years.
A demonstration project called ExpandED Schools was launched in 2011 by The After-School Corp. (TASC), a 15-year-old nonprofit based in New York City. Its approach is to not just lengthen the school day, but to “reinvent” how time is used from beginning to end.
This “reinvention” is crucial. Research has shown that in many schools, but especially in schools serving low-income students, much of the day is wasted.
A 1990s study on classroom management found that teachers spend up to three-quarters of their time in activities other than instruction, and that students can spend less than one-fifth of classroom time “successfully engaged in academic tasks.” In middle school, the study found, a typical class averaged 38 minutes of instruction per three hours.
There are 11 elementary schools in the ExpandED program, in New York, New Orleans and Baltimore. Each school tailors its own program to student needs, utilizing community input and partnerships that strive to give students a holistic education and experiences that allow them to develop their talents.
Those, like TASC, who favor expanded learning time in schools, say that a major advantage of this approach is the ability to change the school culture. The project uses some of the time to offer special training for principals and teachers to promote collaboration, higher expectations, and the chance to develop more engaging curriculum.
In the 11 schools, the curriculum includes art, music, technology, performing arts and other “enrichment” activities. Much of this, however, is achieved by using teaching artists and outside partners funded through private and government grants, since another goal of the demonstration project is to pilot affordable models for extended learning.
A first-year report on the ExpandED schools found that students increased math proficiency and attendance. In addition, older students reported that they had a more positive school experience. Parents and staff ranked their schools higher than citywide averages on measures including safety and communication.
Stakeholder involvement is key
Although researchers haven’t been able to pinpoint any one approach that works best, they agree that schools must work with communities to respond to their needs.
A review by the nonprofit Child Trends of some 80 evaluations of extended-school-time programs did not produce a slam-dunk.
It concluded that the available evidence “suggests that schools implementing longer school days and longer school years can be effective in raising academic performance, as indicated by test scores.”
It added, however, that “more research is needed focusing on the unique effect of the longer school day or longer school year over and above other … reform efforts.”
And while there is consistent research around summer learning loss, especially among low-income children – some studies say that the backslide in reading and math proficiency each summer is the primary cause of the “achievement gap” – more schools choose to extend the day rather than the year.
Research is mixed on the effectiveness of extended year programs, especially if they are required rather than voluntary.
“It is important to take into account the perceptions of teachers, students, and parents when implementing [extended-year] models,” the Child Trends report said. “Initiatives that were implemented without the buy-in and support of these key stakeholders were not found to be successful.”