What Could Extended School Schedules Do For Students?

Houston Independent School District is one example of districts forging ahead with extending the day and year.
by , | October 4, 2011 AT 1:00 PM

Could longer school days and years be a cure for the nation's education woes? U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan suggested as much during a panel discussion co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress and the National Center on Time and Learning (NCTL) last week.

Duncan portrayed the idea of an expanded school schedule as one of critical importance in the nation's fight to remain economically competitive. Students in China and India spend 30 to 45 more days at school than their American counterparts, Duncan said. He pledged to provide more flexibility for schools to pursue extended learning models under the new waiver program for No Child Left Behind and to loosen federal funding for schools to implement new schedules.

In a recent survey, NCTL found at least 1,000 schools in the United States that operate on an expanded schedule. A closer look at 30 extended-day schools found that these schools generally reached more disadvantaged students, and that students' state math and reading scores were on average five percent higher -- up to 20 percent higher -- than their peers.

Many schools, particularly charter schools, have embraced the extended learning idea. Chicago has initiated a pilot program for six of its public schools to add 90 minutes to their school day, the Chicago Tribune reports, a model that Mayor Rahm Emanuel hopes to expand to the entire school district. One D.C. council member proposed the possibility last year, according to the Washington Post.

As part of its Apollo 20 program, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) added 60 minutes a day and five school days at four high schools and five middle schools last year. The school calendar will add another five days in this academic year, and 11 elementary schools will join the effort.

Dr. Alicia Thomas, HISD's deputy chief academic officer, and Dr. Julie Baker, chief major projects officer, tell Governing that implementing the program has been an unqualified success. Each class period is now 65-70 minutes, up from 50. All students in sixth and ninth grades receive tutoring for one period each day with two students being taught by a certified instructor. Struggling students in other grades attend "double-dose" classes, meaning they attend two periods each day in either reading or math. For students without such needs, they have an opportunity to enrich their learning experience through another elective course or an Advanced Placement class, Thomas says.

"When students are behind, they need to catch up," Thomas says. "Providing students extra time has been a powerful resource in closing that achievement gap."

But Baker stresses there are challenges for the extended learning movement. Funding is the primary hurdle for implementing such programs on a larger scale. HISD receives no state or federal money to support the Apollo 20 program specifically, Baker says, instead relying on Texas Education Agency grants and support from the community.

At the same time, HISD spends about $20 million annually through federal Title I grants on outside tutoring programs over which the school district has no control, Baker says. Increased funding flexibility would allow HISD to instead put that money toward Apollo 20. Considering Duncan's comments last week, Baker and HISD may soon get their wish.

"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."