Time Matters Blog

The “Seeing is Believing” Tour of MA Expanded-Time Schools

Last week, I visited a couple of successful expanded learning time schools through NCTL’s “Seeing Is Believing” tour in Massachusetts. The Huntington Elementary School in Brockton, MA was memorable for me, because of their tight knit leadership group and their teacher buy-in. Their school recognized the urgent need to act in order to create necessary positive change.

Their story is pretty amazing, creating their vision to implement expanded learning time as a turnaround strategy in 2009 when the state designated them a level 3 school on its 5 level accountability system. Having received the state’s MA ELT grant in the spring of 2012, Huntington officially moved forward with an expanded school day in the fall of that year. The Huntington Elementary school recognized their strength in creating a strong ELT program in so short a time due to teacher buy in. They have redesigned their school culture around their ELT plan, with a strong track toward new measurable growth goals that are met with urgency and rigor. With the option of not having to stay during the additional hours that have lengthened the afternoon, 70% of classroom teachers choose to stay and work.  You can tell that the teachers, administrators, and parents are all fully behind this new initiative and students enjoy it as well.

They are a great example of a community who has really embodied their vision and held their beliefs at the top of their mind every day; which is, “every child, every day soaring to success.”  The teachers have bought into this new school identity and enjoy it. One teacher said: “It still isn’t enough time with the expanded time.”

The success of  The Huntington School comes from the staff rallying together to create a sense of ownership over student achievement, internalizing common values, acknowledging the urgency of student achievement, and creating a common goal to focus on the most prevalent need affecting all students.   

View the photos from the “Seeing is Believing” Tour on our Facebook page.

The Time Gap

At NCTL, we make the case that students from disadvantaged backgrounds need more time in school to make up for their general lack of time in productive learning environments outside of school as compared to their more affluent peers.  Not long ago, TASC (the familiar name of The After-School Corporation) actually quantified this differential and found that the gap totaled a stunning 6,000 hours by the time students reached sixth grade.

This fact alone highlights the necessity of our core mission to expand school time for children from low-income communities, but there is also the flip side of our work. That is, not only do they need more time to make up for lost learning time outside of school hours, but the educators in those schools need to be sure that such time is used productively and with a continual, laser-like focus on optimizing learning time.

New research from a group in Los Angeles illuminates how time spent in school also has a socioeconomic class bias. The researchers found through surveys of teachers in 193 California schools that students in high schools serving a predominantly low-income population actually spent less time learning within the same allotted schedules than middle-class high school students. The greater losses in higher-poverty schools stem from, among other things, a greater number of disruptions during class, more days spent testing, and loss of class time due to unqualified substitute teachers. One of the researchers on the study, Nicole Mirra, a postdoctoral student at UCLA, puts the matter succinctly: "This is not narrowly an issue of teachers and students at an individual level. This is about high-poverty schools lacking the resources to respond to broader social conditions."  She’s right: providing these schools more time and tools to better use that time is more essential than ever.

New Opportunity for STEM Education in Expanded-Time Schools

The National Center on Time & Learning (NCTL) is pleased to announce the release of a Request for Proposals to fund a planning grant to initiate or strengthen STEM education in expanded-time schools. Grants will be awarded to schools and their community-based partners to foster innovation and excellence in STEM education by integrating Informal Science and Next Generation Science standards, concepts, practices and core ideas in expanded-time schools, such that they become exemplars for other schools to follow. Grantees will participate in a series of technical assistance sessions and site visits-conducted by NCTL and its partner, TASC (The After-School Corporation) - aimed at helping sites ensure high quality of program design and implementation.
The grant will cover expenses associated with planning, including travel and staff time for both school and partner personnel. Programs are expected to be in place by no later than January 2015.  
Those interested in applying must submit a Letter of Intent (co-signed by the school and partner) to NCTL by April 30 and full proposals are due by May 23, 2014. 
Click to download the RFP.
The planning grants and technical assistance are generously funded through a grant from the Noyce Foundation.

The Complexity of Education

The other day I heard of a fascinating piece of research featured on NPR’s Morning Edition. The show’s social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam reported on a study of Air Force Academy cadets that gives us a little more insight into the phenomenon known as “peer effects,” or how being surrounded by peers of a certain type subtly influences one’s own behavior. Admittedly, the research falls a bit outside of NCTL’s “wheelhouse”, but it, nonetheless, reminded me why I do the work I do.

To summarize the study briefly, the Air Force found that in heterogeneously mixed squadrons (groups with low-, middle-, and high-performing students), the lowest students were more likely to stay enrolled and perform better over time than low-performing students who were in squadrons without a cohort of high-performing students. It seemed, then, that those higher-performing students were having a positive peer effect on the larger group. Armed with this information, the Air Force began to deliberately form squadrons with just high- and low-performing students. After two years, however, the Academy found that lower-performing students actually were doing worse. The peer-effect wasn’t working, researchers realized, because the two types of students tended to fraternize only with similar students, so the low-performing students actually had fairly limited interaction with their higher-performing peers.  The middle-level students had been the “glue” that had catalyzed the peer effect and, without them, the effort to lift those on the lower rungs failed.

So, what does a study about Air Force cadets have to do with NCTL? It is not the specifics of the study that resonate with me, or even the broader issue of peer effects. Rather, this study demonstrates vividly that education is really, really difficult work.  Just when you think you’ve figured out a way to help raise student performance, you encounter another complication that upends that solution.

And this is why at NCTL we are such strong proponents of innovation in schools. There is no one school that has completely “cracked the code” on how to augment student learning, so educators should always be on the lookout for fresh approaches. Having more of the vital resource of time enhances one’s capacity to improve, of course, but success in education really comes down to having the humility to know that the only way to get the teaching and learning process “right” is to appreciate the reality that there is no right answer for every school and for every student.  Instead, the best one can hope for is to always strive to do better.

Arts Advocacy Day- Expanding Learning Time for Arts

Today, we co-sponsor Arts Advocacy Day with Americans for the Arts with a vision to make sure every child in the United States has access to a hiqh-quality arts education. Grassroots advocates from across the country are meeting in Washington, DC with their members of Congress in support of issues like arts education policy, the charitable tax deduction, and funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Americans for the Arts hopes to advance arts education in these specific ways:

  • Make the case so that arts education is valued in our country as an important part of all students’ lives.
  • Inspire new leaders so that more students have access to arts education through the efforts of local, state, and national leaders.
  • Increase visibility so that resources and support are directed to the stakeholders in the ecosystem that can affect change for arts education.

What's At Stake In 2014? Between tax reform, budget battles, and education reauthorization, support for arts and arts education is facing many challenges on Capitol Hill this year. As Congress and the administration grapple with ever-changing policy proposals, it is imperative that arts advocates come to Washington, DC to make sure the arts to make their voices heard!

What can you do? Read our report for more information Advancing Arts Education through an Expanded School Day and join the conversation on twitter today #AAD14 

The Case for Teacher Leadership

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the 1960s in America (and in some other Western European countries) is not simply that these years represent an era of upheaval, of a ready resistance to tradition and an aggressive questioning of those in authority, but that those at the forefront of this change were remarkably self-aware of the tectonic shifts in culture that were taking place. This dual perspective—being part of major shifts in social or institutional structures and being sufficiently able to rise above the day-to-day to contextualize these shifts in broader terms—is actually quite rare. More often, those engaged in the daily grind of life cannot lift up their heads high enough to appreciate how this grind represents not more of the same, but something fundamentally different from what came before.

This interplay between “living in the here and now” and “making history” has occupied my mind lately as I’ve been working with NCTL colleagues on our latest study. This report, which will be released in May, delves into the ways teachers use time to advance their own skills and learning so that they can strengthen instruction and, in turn, enable students to achieve to high expectations. The research is very much aimed at practitioners with the objective of informing and inspiring fellow educators to replicate these effective practices.

And, yet, this study of what teachers are doing in expanded-time schools around the country is not just about the best of professional learning, but also shines a spotlight on the fundamental changes now shaping the teaching profession—when the daily challenges of managing a classroom of 25 or 30 children are intertwined with much broader trends. With the advent of Common Core standards and with the various efforts to evaluate teachers in more sophisticated ways, expectations for teaching are not the same now as they were even just a few years ago. Teachers are no longer supposed to be merely the purveyors of knowledge, but guides for students’ own explorations. The value of teacher is expressed in how they lead, both in the classroom and out.

A recent speech from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan picks up on this theme that teachers are not just individual agents in their own schools, but also can be part of a wider movement. They can meet “smaller” goals of educating particular children and grander ones at once.

Teaching will change, too, as the nation's understanding deepens about the critically important factors that may be just as important to student success as reading and math skills — factors like grit, perseverance, resilience, and confidence.

The role of teachers in leading through this change isn't a nicety — it's a necessity. Teachers must shape what teaching will become.

Indeed, that is one of the themes that kept emerging as we went around the country visiting schools and speaking with teachers: the recognition that the future of teaching is being crafted very deliberately by the teachers themselves. For sure, this “I’m part of history” perspective is a minority one among those I met. Still, many more individuals than I expected do have a strong sense that their labors—and their striving to become even better—are part of a larger mission to change the role and the expectations of teachers. I’m fairly confident that as these teachers grow in both their capacity as educators and as change agents, our schools and students will be better for it.

The “Brass Tacks” of Expanded Learning Time

Last spring, I visited Elizabeth, New Jersey to conduct some research on one of the few districts in the country that has expanded school time for all its schools (30 total) and students (about 24,000). Imagine: 24 K – 8 and six high schools with a school day of over eight hours. When you’ve been in this field as long as I have, finding a district that is clearly outside the mainstream in terms of its school structure makes you stand up and take notice. It must have been a momentous struggle to break so thoroughly from the conventional 6.5-hour day, I thought. And, yet, when I spoke with the district leaders, what struck me most was their perspective that instituting a long day was a pretty straightforward and, indeed, natural decision. In fact, when I asked the district business manager why more districts hadn’t invested in a strategy of expanded time, he shrugged and said candidly, “I don’t know. I guess they don’t realize how doable it is.”

Now by “doable”, this Elizabeth official did not mean that expanded day comes without some financial costs attached. For Elizabeth, the expenditures associated with expanding time for all its schools are roughly 9 percent higher outlays for teacher salaries this year.  (Salaries are higher for K – 8 teachers who work the eight-hour day; high school teachers stagger schedules to cover the full student day, but themselves work a seven-hour day.) There are also higher compensation rates for support personnel and administrators. Still, given the reality of paying staff more to work more hours, Elizabeth was able to prioritize this investment and make the expanded-day a reality. Put another way, when Elizabeth leaders actually examined the “brass tacks” of an expanded-time strategy, they found a reasonable path to implementation.

We delve more deeply into the financial picture of one school in Elizabeth, the Dr. Orlando Edreira Academy, together with four other expanded-time schools in our recently-released report, Financing Expanded Learning Time in Schools, which we released with support from The Wallace Foundation. Among the things we learned from these five schools was the lesson that the Elizabeth official was alluding to in his unassuming way. Providing more time for teaching and learning through an expanded school day (and/or year) is not free—after all, if the first 180 days and 6.5 hours have a cost, why shouldn’t more time also require more investment?—but that, in each case, the expansion is eminently doable.

In my mind, this was also the underlying message behind a recent piece by Boston Globe columnist, Scot Lehigh, in which he considered some “brass tacks” about the costs of expanding time for Massachusetts students. After running through the numbers, Lehigh concludes that to expand school time at elementary and middle schools serving a majority low-income population—the students who research shows benefit most from more school time—the state would need to allocate roughly $120 million to serve over 90,000 students across the Commonwealth.

Now, in previous writing, Lehigh has revealed himself to be a strong advocate of providing more time for teaching and learning to public schools.  In a column a year ago on the remarkable performance of charter schools in Boston, for example, Lehigh wrote, “The real reason charter students are showing big gains is obvious: They get significantly more school time.”

So, while the figure he puts out might seem high in the abstract, in actuality, it represents roughly 2 percent of what the state currently spends on K – 12 education (i.e., almost $5 billion). In other words, what this proposal really conveys to me is that same “can do” sentiment current expanded-time schools and districts often display. He is demonstrating to advocates and doubters alike that policymakers do not need to move heaven and earth to commit the resources needed to make this strategy take hold more broadly. Lehigh understands the benefits of expanding learning time. Now he wants to make it doable.

Expanded Learning Time Momentum Continues in the Commonwealth

Over 65,000 students are now in 132 expanded-time schools across 29 communities in Massachusetts. Once a reform in just a few schools in the Commonwealth, expanding learning time has now become a proven strategy in both district and charter schools. The state's schools join over 1,500 schools across the country that have expanded their school calendars with more and better learning time.

In Massachusetts, this growth means that schools expanding learning time through the Massachusetts Expanded Learning (ELT) Initiative now have more opportunities to collaborate with other expanded-time schools across the state. Last month, Massachusetts 2020 hosted our second leadership session of the 2013-2014 school year for MA ELT Initiative schools. This all-day coaching session included two break-out sessions led by teams from expanded-time schools outside the ELT Initiative: leaders from Boston Collegiate Charter School discussed how they leverage their expanded-time schedule to implement the Common Core while leaders from Guilmette Elementary in Lawrence shared their approach to community partnerships.
Collaborations between expanded-time schools of all models are at the heart of our work. We look forward to continuing to the conversations in the months to come.

Expanded Learning Highlighted in USA Today

With Governor Christie’s call for expanded learning time and persistent winter weather storms closing schools across the U.S, the discussion of longer school days and years has continued to grow.  Yesterday, USA Today took a look at the renewed attention as schools deal with a difficult winter.   

Specifically highlighted in the article was the work of Massachusetts’s Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School. The school saw their students' English scores jump 10%, and math scores go up 16%, after adding an hour to the elementary school day and 3½ hours to the middle school schedule. "Students know it's worth their time to be here and their time will be used well because it involves all the different aspects," said Meghan Welch, the director of operations at Orchard Gardens.

Read the entire USA Today article here.

You can read more about Orchard Gardens School’s expanded learning success here.

Olympic Dreams

This past week, in honor of the Winter Olympics, I finally got around to watching the movie “Cool Runnings” – the story of the unlikely Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the 1988 games in Calgary. I’m no expert, but I think I can safely say that the movie stayed true to the essence of what is undeniably a fun and inspiring story. What is interesting to me, though, is that, even though the movie was never a contender for an Oscar, it has become somewhat of a cultural icon and its subject has had real staying power. Even in 2014—26 years after the original team competed—the Jamaican two-man bobsled team got a disproportionate amount of coverage for a 29th place finisher. There’s something very compelling in a “fish out of water” tale. We can’t help but think: if they can do it, anyone can.

In the world of education, there is no shortage of these types of stories. We are thrilled by students who rise to great achievement, despite the disadvantages they face in their background or the lack of opportunities available to them. We are inspired by teachers who, despite seemingly impossible odds, motivate their students to accomplish things they never believed they could. Surely, we are admiring of schools, especially those that serve mainly poor kids, that innovate and stretch the boundaries of learning.

And yet, there is also something deeply troubling about these stories: their relative rarity. Why should it be that students from poor neighborhoods who go to college is the exception? Why should schools that consistently furnish their students with high-quality learning environments seem like islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity? Indeed, sometimes they seem as out of place as a Jamaican bobsled team.

At NCTL, our vision is that someday expanded-time schools should become the norm and not the exception. This vision stems not from a belief that there is something inherently necessary about an eight-hour school day or a 200-day school year, but rather because we know that with more time in school often comes more opportunity for success. In turn, the more schools build this opportunity into their very structure, the more common it will be for children to break the cycle of poverty that holds them down.

What drives our work, and, I suspect, the work of many education advocates is the same simple notion that draws us to the Jamaican bobsledders. It is neatly summarized in, of all places, a report by McKinsey on the state of American education.  The authors found that student outcomes varied not only between schools in different socioeconomic strata, but also between schools with very similar demographic profiles. They thus concluded: “The wide variation in performance among schools serving similar students suggests that these gaps can be closed. Race and poverty are not destiny.” That is, if those schools can do it, any school can.