For Low-Income Kids, Is More Time in School the Answer?

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To help disadvantaged kids who are struggling to keep up in school, some education advocates believe that extending the school day could give them the extra boost they need. They argue that many parents can’t afford to send their kids to the varied extracurricular activities that wealthier children enjoy – leaving poorer kids with a sparse education that focuses primarily on testing.

On that premise, five states recently announced that select school districts will participate in a three-year extended time pilot project funded with a mix of federal, state and district funds, along with private philanthropy from the Ford Foundation and National Center on Time and Learning.
Extended-time advocates cite studies showing a gap in childhood opportunity that mirrors the widening income gap. Wealthy families can and do spend more money on music and art lessons, tutors, and summer camp for their children that help them get ahead, while low-income kids often go home after school to unsafe neighborhoods, with little supervision and fewer positive outlets for their time and energy. The extended time movement is meant to correct those inequalities by offering the same diverse array of activities and adult mentors to disadvantaged children.

But simply tacking on hours at the end of a school day is not the solution, according to some.

"The issue is that many of the schools that poor kids go to are not good schools," said Elena Silva, a senior associate at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. "If that’s the case, the obvious question is, why would you extend more time? You don’t need more of a bad thing." Silva has researched the efficacy of extended time and come up with mixed results.

In theory, it could work, she says, but it's often resource intensive and takes the space and time for creative outside-the-box thinking. Silva is skeptical that school districts will have the time or money to redesign the school day in the ways that are necessary to make extended-learning effective. The strongest research out there supports a shorter summer to minimize the summer learning loss that is well documented among low-income students.

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And that's what the pilot program will attempt to address: what kind of extended learning works best. Participating schools will add at least 300 hours to the school year and focus on broad frameworks like academics and enrichment, strong partners and teacher development. Beyond that, each school community will figure out how to design its own program.

"When the time is really used to focus kids in interesting and engaging ways, that is a powerful aid to learning," said Jeannie Oakes, director of the Ford Foundation’s Educational Opportunities and Scholarship Program. "The better is as important as the more. That means changing the substance of what goes on, not just adding hours."

It also means bringing in community-based organizations and other outside resources that allow for staggered teacher schedules and built-in teacher planning periods. Oakes says the ideal extended-learning environment would provide richer opportunities that allow learning to go beyond tests, and would include subjects that have been stripped out of most public schools -- art, music, science labs, real-world internships and field trips.

CARRYING THE COST

The extended-learning vision is a compelling one, but it has been tried and failed, Silva says, not because it's a bad idea, but because there wasn't enough sustained funding to transform schools. The 2009 stimulus bill included money for School Improvement Grants (SIG) for the worst performing schools in the country. Some of that funding was used to extend the school day. Silva evaluated many of those schools and found that teachers and administrators faced so many challenges that they had no space to imagine or execute a re-designed school day.

"There are a lot of people out there who don’t have time to add time in really creative ways," she said. Instead schools were overwhelmed trying to meet federal requirements that included changing leadership, huge staffing turnovers and shifts in curriculum and pedagogical approach. On top of that, funding was finite and limited. Not only did they not know how to use the extra time, they were reluctant to make big structural changes that would have to be reversed when the money dried up.

"Ideally these pilots will give us an answer, because we’ll see some cost-effective, creative ways to do this," Silva said. "But I don’t think that we can get around the fact that it will be more expensive than what we have now." Already when districts look at their budgets, they are scared at what they see. "They are being conservative because they know there isn't as much money as there once was," said Silva.

HARD TO MEASURE RESULTS

One of the toughest challenges that extended-time advocates contend with is finding an effective way to isolate the influence of more time on a child’s academic achievement. Oakes says the Ford Foundation will track standard measures, but they also want to develop new measures that take into account some of the less tangible gains. If the goal is "better time" then it can't be all about the test – it's about teaching to the whole child, she said. Lack of hard data could become a problem, however, when it comes time to convince politicians to spend more money nationwide on a longer school day.

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Another concern about the extended school day is that it provides so much structure that kids don't have time to just be kids – to play, imagine and relax. "The reflection time, the free time, that's a worry, frankly, of the advantaged class," Oakes said.

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