As Governing has highlighted before, many education policymakers believe extended learning times could have a dramatic impact on student performance. According to the National Center on Time & Learning (NCTL), which advocates for adding instruction time, at least 1,000 schools nationwide operate on some kind of expanded schedule.
A new NCTL report, released this week, focused on one Boston school that piloted an extended schedule in search of student growth: Orchard Gardens, a K-8 elementary and middle school in a low-income area (more than 90 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches). The school, which opened in 2003, had perennially low test scores; proficiency rates were stuck below 20 percent in both math and English Language Arts on Massachusetts state exams.
In 2010, Boston Superintendent Carol Johnson turned to Andrew Bott, who had improved student test scores at Rogers Middle School, to lead a turnaround effort at Orchard Gardens. The school received a federal School Improvement Grant worth $3.7 million. The effort was comprehensive, with 80 percent of the staff being replaced and the school receiving more autonomy in budget decisions. But the hallmark was adding hours to the schedule, one of the requirements of the federal grant. The school tacked on four hours for grades 6 and 7; one hour for the rest of the grades.
According to the NCTL report, based on analysis of test score data and interviews with staff members and students, the plan has yielded results. State exam scores increased 16 percent in math from 2009-2010 to 2010-2011 and 10 percent in English Language Arts. Although those proficiency figures still lag behind state averages, they rank Orchard Gardens in the state’s 63rd percentile in English Language Arts and the 79th percentile in math for student growth.
All students were able to spend at least an extra 35 minutes daily in both math and English Language Arts under the new schedule. The sixth- and seventh-grade students get an extra hour of homework aid every day starting at 2:30 p.m. (when the other students go home) and attend apprenticeship programs at local businesses from 3:30 to 5:30 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. On Friday, though, everybody gets to go home at 2:30.
According to the NCTL analysis, seventh-grade students spent an additional 17 hours in class every week compared to their 2009-2010 schedule before the change. That equals an extra seven-plus hours for reading and writing, nearly four hours for math and more than four hours for electives.
Teachers saw a benefit as well: weekly instruction time increased more than four hours on average, and educators added more than two hours of planning.
In interviews with the study’s authors, Bott framed the added time as a crucial element of the school’s overall turnaround plan. “To make all those things work well, you also need more time,” he said, “for students to catch up academically and learn skills beyond those that are tested, and for teachers to look at data and share practices to become even better teachers.”
The Orchard Gardens principal’s views are shared by policymakers all the way up to the top of the U.S. public education sphere. Last fall, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said during a panel discussion on extended school schedules that such changes were crucial in America’s fight to stay competitive. He noted that students in China and India spend on average 30 to 45 more days in the classroom than their American counterparts. A culture shift is needed, Duncan asserted.
"The fact that our schools' schedule is still based on the agrarian calendar is stunning to me," Duncan said. "The fact that we haven't done anything to change it is unacceptable."
The full NCTL report is below.