The Powerful Trend to Improve Schools through Expanded Learning Time

As state legislators and school boards complete their sessions and schools break for the summer, we are reminded of the tremendous momentum over this past year to expand and strengthen learning time in schools.

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Unified School Board unanimously passed a resolution calling for the superintendent to plan to dramatically increase instructional time to improve student success for Los Angeles's students. Last month, the Iowa legislature approved a bill to fund a pilot project to plan for expanded learning time in three school districts.The month before that, New York City announced that it would be trying out a significantly longer school day -- two-and-a-half hours longer -- in 20 city schools. The Portland, Maine school committee also issued a report calling for the exploration of expanded learning time for the 2014-2015 school year.

In Texas, lawmakers have established an Expanded Learning Opportunities Council. In New Mexico, state lawmakers have considered legislation to lengthen the school year by 20 days. Florida is providing an extra hour per day in the 100 lowest-performing elementary schools. From Hopewell, Virginia, to Mitchell, South Dakota, to Seattle, Washington, school leaders around the country are increasingly discussing expanded learning time as a key strategy to improve teaching and learning.

Taken together, these efforts show that the movement to expand learning time has reached a tipping point. In the next several years, it's likely that millions of more students will benefit from an expanded and strengthened school day and year.

It's well past time for us to modernize our outdated school calendar so these developments are welcome. In 1983, the release of A Nation at Risk sent shockwaves through the American public education system. In stark terms, President Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education made the case that because our schools were churning out graduates who lacked the knowledge and skills to compete in the increasingly competitive global economy, we were "committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament."

As the authors of A Nation at Risk pointed out more than 30 years ago, America's students simply do not spend enough time in quality learning environments to reach the high expectations of the modern global economy -- and that observation is even truer now, in the 21st century. We can't expect our students - particularly those in high-poverty schools - to receive the preparation they need to succeed in college and the workforce if we adhere to the antiquated school calendar of 180 six-and-a-half hour days.

Fortunately, elected leaders and educators are proving ready to consider alternatives to the conventional school calendar. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed, and the state legislature has funded, a competitive grant program to provide schools up to 300 more annual hours starting this fall. New York modeled its initiative after one begun in Massachusetts several years ago. Massachusetts and New York are two of five states -- joining Colorado, Connecticut and Tennessee -- participating in the TIME Collaborative, an effort spearheaded by the National Center on Time & Learning (NCTL) and the Ford Foundation to create models of high-quality expanded learning time schools that will serve thousands of students in the five states starting this fall. These schools will serve as models for the many education leaders looking for how to expand high-quality learning time.

In the nation's capital, D.C. schools chancellor Kaya Henderson has announced that the next teachers' contract will give principals more flexibility to expand the school day or year. In the city of Salem, Massachusetts, Mayor Kim Driscoll has personally led an effort to expand time in the city's struggling schools.

As districts across the country embrace expanding learning time, we are seeing national popular support as well. Three-quarters of respondents from a nationwide February poll - including 80 percent of parents with children enrolled in public schools - agreed that more time in school will better prepare students for success in college and the workforce.

Many other developments around the country are detailed in "Learning Time in America," a report issued in May by NCTL and the Education Commission of the States.

From turnaround schools that have added substantial time to their schedules to high-performing charter schools that have always operated with longer days and years, the evidence is clear that more time is a key building block for an education system that develops in students the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. Of course, we know that more time cannot mean more of the same. Instead, expanded time must be used to rethink the school day, with a broader curriculum, engaging enrichment, and new opportunities for teachers to personalize instruction.

Our nation has far to go to achieve the worthy goal of having all students attend schools that furnish an intellectually rigorous and enriching education, but we should not overlook the extraordinary pace and scope of change taking place right now. And as we appreciate how we are edging closer to the aspirations laid out decades ago in A Nation at Risk, we should also note how efforts to break from the conventional school calendar stand at the vanguard of the promise for future success.