The argument for expanded learning time has been advanced on a national stage since the convention of compulsory education began to take hold.
In 1894, U.S. Commissioner of Education William Torrey Harris published a report about the state of American public education in which he complained of the loss of time in urban school days from 193.1 to 191.
Nearly one hundred years after Harris’s report, the debate about the school calendar in America continued. In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence released its report A Nation at Risk which added to the growing consensus that the American school system was failing. The commission highlighted four areas of findings: content, expectations, time, and teaching.
Specifically, the commission recommended that schools consider a 7-hour day and 200- to 220-day school year. Of the five recommendations from the report, learning time is the only recommendation where there has not been a significant change. Schools across the country largely still adhere to the traditional calendar.
In April 1994, the National Education Commission on Time and Learning – originally established by President George H.W. Bush – published a report, Prisoners of Time, referencing Commissioner Harris’s 1894 report and outlining inherent problems with the traditional school calendar.
The commission argued that education is a top priority for the United States, citing public opinion polls and the bipartisan support for the Goals 2000, Educate America Act, which introduced eight broad and ambitious goals to improve the education system. In the report, the Commission highlighted how the constraints on learning time present a hurdle to achieve the targets laid out in the Goals 2000 Act. It then presented eight recommendations to correct the “design flaw” of traditional school calendars.
In 1997, Arizona became the first and only state in the nation to incentivize an increase in the number of instructional days for school districts from the minimum required 180 days to 200. The state offers an increase of the base level funding by five percent for school districts that do choose to add 20 days to their school year. Since the creation of the incentive, three districts in Arizona have implemented the 200 day school year, Balsz, Riverside, and Nadaberg School Districts. Balsz School District has been implementing the longer school year for over three years and has experienced an increase in student achievement.
Partly in response to this report, the National Conference of State Legislatures included expanding learning time as an issue at its national conference in 1998. At that event, 14 states indicated they were considering bills to lengthen the school day and/or year. Since that time, however, the calendar of 180 6.5-hour school days has remained the norm.
Also in the 1990’s, charter schools were beginning to be established. While both district public schools and state policy on school time have been slow to move away from the conventional calendar, charter schools - public schools that are granted autonomy from traditional school districts while being held accountable for student outcomes – are the one sector of public education that have moved away from the standard more readily. Charter schools have broken from the conventional school calendar in large part because, in most cases, these schools are legally authorized to set their own operating hours. They take advantage of such flexibility to have longer schools day and a longer school year. About sixty percent of all expanded-time schools nationwide are charter schools.
In 2005, Massachusetts became the first state in the country to offer competitive grants for schools that were willing to rethink their school calendar. In school year 2006-2007, ten schools in five school districts opened their doors with school calendars that offered three hundred additional hours across the school year through the MA Expanded Learning Time Initiative, a state grant. Currently, the MA ELT Initiative funds 22 schools in 11 districts to add 300 hours to their school year through a $15.1 million state grant.
In March 2009 shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama gave a speech on his education priorities where he said:
“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. That calendar may have once made sense, but today it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children -- listen to this -- our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea -- every year. That's no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy. That's why I'm calling for us …to rethink the school day to incorporate more time -– whether during the summer or through expanded-day programs for children who need it.”
That address followed new investment by President Obama into the School Improvement Grant Program through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). Included in the Act was $3.5 billion for the School Improvement Fund, a program within the United States Department of Education that aims to “turn around” chronically low-performing schools. (This amount was in addition to $500 million that had been allocated to the Fund through regular budget appropriations.) By outlining the guidelines for the School Improvement program, the Department explicitly named “increased learning time” as one of the key reforms schools must undertake in two of the models, ‘transformation’ and ‘turnaround’. (Schools must also make large-scale staffing changes and implement robust tutoring and data systems.) This School Improvement Grant (SIG) program provided grants to a total of about 1,600 schools since 2010.)
In September 2012, Chicago became the first large urban district to expand the school calendar district-wide. The district increased its school day from a 5.75-hour day to a 7-hour day across its 675 schools and 400,000 students. As part of the agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union, the district added 477 new teaching positions and added $130 million in funding to give principals and school communities flexibility to structure the new school day.
In December 2012, NCTL and the Ford Foundation announced a five-state initiative to develop high-quality expanded learning time schools called the TIME Collaborative. Over three years, the TIME Collaborative has helped 41 schools in 16 districts in CT, CO, MA, NY and TN, to plan for and implement redesigned and expanded school schedules.
In January 2015, Boston Public Schools and the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) announced an agreement to expand the school day by 40 minutes at 60 elementary and middle grades schools beginning with 20 schools in the 2015-2016 school year. The agreement was ratified by a vote of the BTU teachers by a 4-to-1 margin.