A Suburban Take on Expanded Time

At NCTL, we rarely spend much of our energy or focus on efforts to expand school time that aren’t in districts with a significant portion of poor students. As is well known, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are much more likely to benefit from more learning time simply because there are many fewer productive learning opportunities outside the school day. Students from more affluent communities, on the other hand, spend many out-of-school hours in specialized classes or in environments that promote positive growth and development.

But a recent initiative to expand school time in Needham, Massachusetts—a town of about 30,000 west of Boston with a low-income student population of just 6.5 percent—has caught my attention for three reasons. The first is the most obvious: that Needham is considering expanding time at all. After all, more than eight in ten Needham students are scoring proficient on the state’s assessment.  At the upper grades, the percentages are even higher, with 99 percent of high schoolers earning a proficient rating in English and 96 percent in math.  According to the latest PISA results, Massachusetts itself ranks among the top performers in the world, so this means that one of the highest performing districts within one of the the highest performing states still isn’t satisfied. Why would a district with this performance profile possibly want or need more school time? The superintendent, Dan Gutekanst, in his report to the local school board on the proposal answers this question plainly: 

If Needham’s young people are to continue to benefit from a superb education and can be appropriately prepared for an interconnected and globalized society, certain programmatic and instructional needs must be addressed…. These programmatic and instructional needs can only be addressed if we consider adding more time to the day and if we reconsider how we use the time we already have for elementary programming, professional development, and staff meetings.

It is the specific needs that are proposed that constitute the second reason why this proposal is notable. Here are the details on what is planned, starting in the 2014-15 school year:
·         Add 25 minutes to the elementary school student day
·         Add 10 minutes to the middle school student day
·         Increase teacher planning time at all levels, K-12
·         Enhance elementary school program by: 
o    Expanding wellness and PE in grades 1-5 
o    Adding Spanish instruction in grades 1-5 
o    Adding a rotating STEAM program (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Mathematics) in grades 1-3 
·         Add new music, arts and club sports programs at Needham High School

On the face of it, then, this is not a terribly ambitious plan, at least in terms of the quantity of time that is being added.  Consider that in the schools we work most closely with, we urge the increase of a minimum of 300 hours annually.  This proposal would add just 75 hours for elementary students and only 30 hours for middle schoolers. 

Yet, such an assessment overlooks the fact that these changes will not be superficial, but will, in fact, cut to the core of what we at NCTL consistently argue is key for educational advancement: (a) more time for teacher collaboration and planning to drive innovation and (b) more time for program enhancements like foreign languages and interdisciplinary learning. In other words, the committee set up to explore the implications and possibilities of expanding time took a serious and thoughtful look, too, at how time was being spent during the current school day. It determined that to bring the school system to the next level of excellence, they would need to reconfigure the whole school day and that adding even just a few daily minutes would open up more opportunities for both these enhancements and for teachers to work together to improve instruction, not to mention the chance for more individualized learning for students.

Which brings me to the third reason why this proposal is important, and, indeed, might have repercussions beyond the small town of Needham. Quite simply: this expansion will not be free. The superintendent has submitted a budget that, to implement the programmatic and structural enhancements, would require an additional $2.1 million—that is $2.1 million more than the town can currently afford. As such, the school committee will need to go to the voters to see if they will support a tax override that could pay for the proposed increase in school time, boosting the tax burden on homeowners an average of $200. 

Will the voters in Needham be willing to pay for more school time? We’ll know for sure in April, but, if they do, it will send a strong signal to others in the state and perhaps in other locations that public education can never afford to stand still.  Even in towns that, on many levels, already have thriving school systems, the demands that will be placed on the future workers and citizens of our country require that schools always seek ways to improve and strengthen what they do, improvements that often entail the expansion of school time.

And here I have to insert a fourth reason why this story interests me. I live in Needham. My own children have benefited enormously from being students in its public schools. And I can personally testify to the fact that the schools are, generally, very strong. But I also recognize that there is room for growth. In particular, the town’s schools need to do a better job at addressing the learning needs of all students. (Needham did not earn the top accountability status, for example, because its high-needs students did not post adequate growth.) So, when I vote in favor of higher taxes to support expanded school time this spring, I know that I’ll enter the voting booth with the keen words of Superintendent Gutekanst in my head:

More time on learning in and of itself will not address all of the many tasks and challenges ahead for the Needham Schools nor is more time in the classroom a guarantee of accelerated student learning or achievement. But there exists an opportunity to pursue extended learning in Needham—for students and teachers—that I believe will support educational innovation and empower young people and the adults who serve them… It’s the right thing to do for Needham students.