The Time Tipping Point

A teacher welcome pupils in a classroom at David Johnston primary school on September 4, 2012, in Bordeaux, southwestern Fran
A teacher welcome pupils in a classroom at David Johnston primary school on September 4, 2012, in Bordeaux, southwestern France, after the start of the new school year. AFP PHOTO / PIERRE ANDRIEU (Photo credit should read PIERRE ANDRIEU/AFP/GettyImages)

Schools are approaching a tipping point on time. Throughout the country, educators are reconsidering the traditional school day and school year calendar and exploring ways to increase the amount of learning time provided to students. This increasing focus on time is based on research that proves that more and better learning time increases student engagement, achievement, and success.

The widespread adoption of expanded learning time is an imperative if we are to build a stronger education system that better prepares students for success in the 21st century economy. Furthermore, millions of students currently struggling in school are not going to overcome opportunity and achievement gaps without access to more quality learning time.

Time is a limited resource, and one that must be invested strategically and sustainably. As expanded learning approaches are tested more broadly, we are faced with key decisions that could make or break time as a pillar of education reform. Who participates? For how long? And, what characterizes that time? Expanded learning time must start as a strategic effort to deliver differentiated learning experiences to the students who need it the most.

1) Who Participates?

While all students stand to benefit from more time for learning, some students need expanded learning time (ELT) more than others. Students who are performing below grade level need extra time to gain academic skills, narrow achievement gaps, and succeed in the classroom. Students who come from low-income families and under-resourced communities need expanded learning opportunities to access enrichment activities otherwise unavailable to them due to cost or accessibility. In both cases, ELT approaches that are targeted to high-need students and designed to address their learning and developmental needs can have an extraordinary impact on their engagement and achievement.

On the other hand, students who are performing well in school, and students who are able to participate in camps and other quality expanded learning activities, do not necessarily need more school-based time. That doesn't mean that more time is a bad thing for successful students, it simply means that the incremental benefit of providing that additional time is not nearly as great as the benefit for high-need students.

Furthermore, the need for ELT opportunities is often a result of factors both inside and outside of the school -- parent engagement, availability of learning materials in the home, accessibility of summer learning experiences -- which all play significant roles in determining student success. Consider summer learning, in particular -- if students lack access to structured summer learning experiences, they are going to fall behind regardless of how many hours the school day operates. As long as more affluent students participate in vacations, camps, and other enriching activities at a disproportionately higher rate while their disadvantaged counterparts go unsupervised and unengaged, differential summer learning loss will continue and achievement gaps will persist. Targeting learning time for the students who need it the most is the most realistic and effective starting point for closing achievement gaps and leveling the playing field.

2) For How Long?

There is no simple answer to this question. One set of research requires at least 300 hours of additional time to be effective. Expanded learning initiatives in CO, CT, MA, NY, and TN are adopting this goal. But, a broader review of the evidence base found that some expanded learning programs offering 150 or 200 hours to be effective, while longer programs may suffer from the law of diminishing returns.

While research can be found to support virtually any recommendation about how much time is enough, the most important take-away from the literature as a whole is simply that time can boost achievement. How much time is really needed in any one school or school district depends on student needs. For under-performing students, those who are near grade-level proficiency may need less time than peers who are several years below grade level proficiency. English language learners who have the added challenge of overcoming linguistic differences to succeed in school may require more time than English proficient students. Furthermore, how much time is actually possible with the available resources at hand may vary from school to school and community to community.

If only all schools could expand learning time by a set number of hours. But with limited resources, schools may have to start with the flexibility to find the right number of hours that balance impact and sustainability.

3) What happens during expanded learning time?

All time is not equal. The quality of expanded learning time is of utmost importance. Simply tacking on an hour at the end of each school day, or adding days to the school year, or spreading out the existing school calendar by lengthening winter and spring breaks, is not going to deliver the transformation that is so sorely needed in our education system. In fact, research shows that students from all backgrounds tend to learn at approximately the same rate during school hours, which suggests that "more of the same" will have little to no effect in narrowing achievement gaps.

Instead, more time for learning has to be specialized and designed to meet the needs of targeted students. That could mean, for example, small-group instruction for academic remediation, hands-on enrichment to build self-confidence and engagement, or bilingual tutoring to help English language learners. Schools are not alone in the effort to create such an ecosystem of differentiated learning experiences, as community partners ranging from nonprofits to churches and parks and recreation departments have important roles to play.

We are inspired that more and more schools and school districts are finding different ways to prioritize time as a key factor in student success. But given the broader education reform and funding environment, chances are that new and sustained waves of funding capable of supporting expanded learning for all students and schools shouldn't be counted on any time soon.

As the expanded learning movement gains momentum, it becomes more important that we aim for clear and achievable standards for participation, quality, and sustainability. A targeted approach that provides quality learning opportunities to struggling students can deliver the greatest impact with limited resources. Furthermore, approaches that mobilize community resources to further expand and enrich learning time stand the best chance for long-term sustainability and impact.