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The research on extending learning time

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Jennifer Davis was in 3rd grade in her home town of Haverhill, Mass., when she was diagnosed as dyslexic.

But her family was solidly middle-class – her father was a realtor – and soon she had tutors and the extra help she needed to catch up.

“I was lucky enough to have a family with resources,” says Davis, who now heads the Boston-based National Center on Time and Learning. “What we’re trying to do is create those support systems for all children.”

Since she co-founded it in 2007, the center has worked to help schools and school districts deal with two sea changes in the American economy: the change from a farm-and-factory economy to a knowledge economy and growing inequality in which some families can afford the supports Davis had, but more and more cannot.

The center pushes for policy changes on the federal and state level that help schools break out of what it calls the “antiquated” mold of 180 days that start between 8 and 9 a.m. and end around 3 p.m. Its mission also includes helping school districts use extra time wisely and disseminating research showing the benefits of extended learning time.

The center and its research director, David Farbman, point to a landmark 1994 report by another group, the National Education Commission on Time and Learning. It states that for many students, getting them to achieve mastery over larger quantities of difficult material in the same amount of time as others was “self-deception.”

Farbman cites:

  • An examination of New York City charter schools by Harvard economist Roland Fryer indicating that “instructional time of at least 300 more hours and high-dosage tutoring were two of the strongest predictors of higher achievement.”
    A study of three years of test data from Illinois schools showing that the more time individual students spent in reading and math class, the higher their scores in those subjects.
    Research based on a large data set of California classrooms indicating a strong correlation between “engaged learning time” and student outcomes in the elementary grades.

Davis says there has been “real momentum” for extended learning time in recent years, including the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative and waivers of the No Child Left Behind law. According to the center’s recent research, 12 states have passed laws or policies allowing for greater flexibility in the school calendar.

The list includes:

  • Massachusetts, which established a competitive grant program for schools adding 300 hours to the school year.
    The state of Washington, which in 2009 passed a law increasing the minimum instructional time in K-12. The requirement for kindergarten more than doubled, from 450 hours to 1,000.
    Maryland, where the legislature instructed the state board of education to explore innovative strategies for low-performing schools that included more instructional time.
    Pennsylvania was not highlighted in the center’s research.

Davis, who previously served as a deputy U.S. secretary of education, says that much of the growth in extended learning time has taken place among charter schools for two reasons: They are starting from scratch with considerable autonomy, and they generally have students that need the extra help.

But she says the organization has also started working more with traditional districts in recent years, in some cases trying to help them reach contract agreements with teacher unions that can accommodate a longer day or extended school calendar.

Even with increased flexibility and extra resources, though, Davis says “educators still need support in understanding how they can use these resources, how to staff a school differently. There’s a real information gap for many districts and school leaders.”

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