Expand School Hours and You Will Expand Learning

Massachusetts model shows that achievement increases and communities improve.

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Should American students go to school for more time, less time, or the same amount of time as they have for most of the past century? The answer is that they should go to school for the time needed to gain the core academic skills and well-rounded education necessary to thrive as individuals and to succeed in today's complex society and high-skills economy.

Students need enough time to learn to read and write well and to handle math comfortably. But they also need time to master science and technology, to grasp history and world affairs, and perhaps to learn a foreign language. Students need time to gain an appreciation of arts, music, and drama and to participate in sports. They need time for project-based learning and self-directed exploration. Younger students need time for recess.

From teachers and principals to scholars and policymakers, including President Obama, more and more people recognize that for many students, the current school schedule, developed in a vastly different era, simply does not work. Across the country, more than 1,000 schools have broken the shackles of conventional schedules to expand learning time well beyond the norm. Their results show that students learn more and thrive, that working parents breathe easier when children are engaged in constructive and supervised learning, and that communities appreciate the advantages of keeping teens from loitering.

Almost all high-performing charter public schools use considerably more learning time. They are notable for their success bridging the achievement gap between middle-class students and those from poor and minority communities. With 66 schools in 19 states and over 16,000 students, KIPP Academies run for 60 percent more time than conventional schools. The results? After four years, 100 percent of KIPP's eighth-grade classes significantly outperformed district averages in English and math. More than 80 percent of KIPP grads have gone on to college, a vastly higher rate than demographics would predict.

Massachusetts adopted the first state policy to support public schools in redesigning and expanding schedules to include better and broader learning opportunities. The state pays the direct costs (about 15 percent more for 30 percent more time) and 26 schools with 13,500 kids are showing gains in core subjects and engaging students more deeply through new curricular opportunities.

At Edwards Middle School in Boston, where about 90 percent of students are poor and most school days are 7:20 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., achievement has soared. The eighth-grade gap with the state average has been narrowed by more than half in English and almost 80 percent in math in two years of expanded learning time. The school boasts an outstanding music and arts program, the only middle school football team in Boston, and an apprenticeship program for every sixth grader.

More than 75 percent of parents of students in the first 10 schools to adopt expanded learning time in Massachusetts indicated the longer day had a positive effect. Teachers report large gains in the ability to reach every student and cover all of the material in depth.

It is too early to say what works best and which students benefit most. But evidence suggests expanded learning time can narrow the achievement gap while expanding opportunities for all students. This is not a one-size-fits-all innovation. Each school develops its design based on a careful assessment of student needs.

To succeed in the knowledge-intensive careers of the 21st century, today's youth must master core academic skills and build strong technology, teamwork, and oral communication skills. Expanding learning time offers kids the chance to build these skills and engage in classes, activities, and even internships that can excite them about learning and launch them on a path to a productive future.

Every athlete, musician, or master of multiplication tables knows that practice improves performance. Common sense, and the success of the more than 1,000 pioneering schools, show that with more time well spent, our young people can thrive in the complex and promising world ahead of them. An America built on the core premise of opportunity must offer all of our children nothing less.

Christopher Gabrieli is chairman of the National Center on Time and Learning and coauthor of the book Time to Learn.