It’s About Time: 180 Six-Hour Days No Longer Meet the Needs of Students

By and / 12.7.2009

The problems that beset America’s schools are myriad: a seemingly unbridgeable achievement gap; deteriorating international competitive position in educational attainment; data showing that schools are narrowing their curricula at a time when a broader course of study is necessary for success. But these challenges have also forced the country’s education leaders to think creatively about reforming the nation’s schools.

One idea that has begun to catch on is the need to change one of the most intractable features of our country’s education system: a 19th-century school calendar of 180 six-hour school days. Increasingly, schools across the country are switching to an expanded time frame to enhance teaching and learning.

Our organization, the National Center on Time & Learning (NCTL), has sought to focus the education policy agenda on converting standard district public schools across America to expanded learning time (ELT) schools. After successfully promoting the idea of shifting schools to ELT in Massachusetts — the first such state policy in the nation — NCTL has spent the last two years building federal interest in the concept, as well as early-adopter interest in several other states and districts.

Education leaders have recognized the need for more days in our school calendar for some time now, but until recently there has been little movement on the issue. While many charter schools have been quick to innovate, using their autonomy to give students the additional time they need to excel academically, traditional district schools have not followed suit. Costs and deeply entrenched cultural routines and expectations have been key obstacles to change. More important, education leaders and policy makers have lacked the “proof points,” policy levers, and models for the successful expansion of learning time within standard schools.

Steps in the Right Direction

But all of this is changing. Today, we are proud to release a new report that finds that a growing number of U.S. schools have already broken from the traditional school calendar and shifted to expanded learning time to improve educational outcomes. The report draws from our new national database and is the first effort to catalog schools operating with days substantially longer than the six-hour norm and, in many cases, a calendar that exceeds the standard 180-day school year.

The report comes at a time of great momentum for the issue nationally. In March, President Obama called for expanded learning time as part of his education agenda, stating, “We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed for when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day.” In his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “I think our school day is too short, our week is too short, our year is too short.” And the guidelines for the highly competitive Race to the Top grant channel unprecedented federal funds to education, including incentivizing adoption of a longer school day and year as part of a strategy for improving schools.

Supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the report and accompanying database comes over 25 years after A Nation at Risk called for a longer school day and year. The report, Tracking an Emerging Movement: A Report on Expanded-Time Schools in America, identifies 655 schools in 36 states serving more than 300,000 students that met the following definition: “An expanded-time school is any public school that has deliberately added more time to the school day and/or days to the school year for all enrolled students (or has been founded with a deliberately longer day and/or year than surrounding public schools) for the express purpose of improving student outcomes.” The study also includes key characteristics and survey data on 245 schools on how the added time is utilized and funded.

Key Findings and Future Research

Significant findings from the analysis of the profiled schools include:

  • On average these schools offer about 25 percent more time than the national norm, which would translate over the course of a school career to over three additional years in school for participating students;
  • While many of the schools included are public charter schools, more than one-quarter of the schools identified are standard district public schools;
  • Compared with national averages, schools with expanded time serve a more heavily minority and poorer student population;
  • 75 percent of schools that convert from a traditional school schedule to an expanded school day pay their teachers more for the additional time worked, an average increase of over 13 percent, while only 44 percent of new schools that start up offer increased compensation; and
  • Data suggest that more time may boost academic achievement, with students in schools with a significantly expanded school day outperforming their district peers.

While the limited data show a positive relationship between student performance and daily time, more study is needed to know what impact these schools will have on closing achievement gaps and providing a more well-rounded education. Even at this stage, however, we can surmise that the act of giving students and teachers more time together has the potential to unlock greater student achievement and engagement, as past research has been fairly clear in establishing a link between time spent learning and student retention and mastery.

As leaders in Washington, D.C. and throughout the country seek to spur the kinds of educational innovation that will bring us closer to our ambitious goal of universal student proficiency, it is clear that expanded time will be a part of the solution. Our challenge will be to learn from the highest performers and ensure that best practices are implemented as this movement expands.