Over the last few months, it has become painfully clear that state and local budgets are suffering. Given that they provide the vast majority of funding for public education, we can expect that public schools and districts will have to do more with less for the foreseeable future. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has gone so far as to call this fiscal state the New Normal.
Certainly, public education advocates should fight against cuts to education funding -- and for increases in that funding when possible. But they must also focus on ensuring that when cuts are necessary, the right cuts are made. In Secretary Duncan's words: "The wrong way to increase productivity in an era of tight budgets is to cut back in a manner that damages school quality and hurts children."
One budget-cutting strategy Duncan cites as common when money is tight but detrimental to children: reducing the number of days in the school year. And there is a real danger of that happening now. Districts from California to Georgia have already cut days. And there could be more to come. South Carolina, for example, is in the midst of a heated debate over the length of the school year, with a top budget writer suggesting cutting ten school days as one way to help ease down the state's deficit.
Let's Increase, Not Decrease, Learning Time
It is particularly sad that we are seeing so many cuts to learning time when some evidence is suggesting that increasing learning time may have a positive impact on students, especially our high-poverty youth. The summer learning slide is a known factor in the achievement gap between our poorest students and their peers. Many of the charter schools that are most successful in working with low-income populations, including the KIPP network of schools, have longer school days and longer school years.
Unscheduled school closings have been shown to negatively impact student performance, particularly in the lower grades. And students in many of the countries that outscore us on standardized international assessments spend more time in school than American students do. So why aren't we talking about extending learning time, rather than cutting it?
Increasing Learning Time During a Fiscal Crisis
Obviously, a major reason is budget. In times of fiscal crisis, can we really afford to extend learning time? Actually, maybe, if we use our resources creatively. Consider the Brooklyn Generation School, which opened as a partnership between the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers. Students at the school receive 20 more instructional days than most district students, but an innovative schedule ensures that no teacher works more than the typical 180 days. And while they are working, teachers have a highly reduced student load and two hours of common planning with colleagues each afternoon. The school offers all this while operating on the same per pupil funding that all district schools get.
Or perhaps we could consider new funding sources. "Extended learning time" does not have to mean more time in class. Quality after school programs have been shown to improve standardized test scores and work habits and to reduce behavior problems of disadvantaged students. Could we create partnerships with community groups that extend the time our children are engaged at school after hours?
The Importance of Quality
Of course, simply adding time to the school day and/or year will not ensure students perform better on standardized tests, or learn more material or more deeply. We must ensure that extended time is well-spent.
One model we can turn to in that endeavor is Boston's Clarence Edwards Middle School. Once one of the lowest-performing middle schools in the city, it is now one of the highest. A key factor is its turnaround was extended learning time. But the school didn't just add class time. It redesigned how it used all time.
So yes, the school increased instructional time for all core subjects. It also implemented "Academic Leagues" -- four hours each week students spend working in groups on their most pressing academic needs. It now features grade-level meetings for teachers two to three times a week. And it offers robust enrichment activities, including electives ranging from environmental science to Latin dancing, thanks in part to the efforts of community partners who help provide the resources necessary for those activities, including (on occasion) instructors for them.
To be sure, Edwards did receive grant funding to implement their vision. But we can still learn from them, and perhaps adapt their model to meet current fiscal constraints.
Given what we know about learning time and its impact on our most vulnerable students, we should not simply cut time from our school year to save funds. Nor should we write off extending learning time without taking a careful look at where we can make cuts and redirect funds. We must be very deliberate in both our budget decisions and our school reform efforts to ensure that we do what is best for our nation's children.