George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Extend, Don't Cut, Learning Time

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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.

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Kimerly Roberson's picture
Kimerly Roberson
Special Education teacher-state funded residential speical school

I am a teacher in South Carolina and the debate to extend the school day and cut out 10days has been a sore spot for educators, parents and students for some time now. It really upsets me because parents and administrators expect teachers to provide students with the best education possible to make them successful doctors or lawyers or whatever, YET when it is discussed that in order to this we need more time in the classroom parents pitch a fit because we are interfering with their vacation times. Administrators and public officials want us to the same thing YET they do not give us the resources--financial or otherwise which we NEED in order to accomplish this and if we do not meet the strict requirements they set up for us then we are labeled a bad teacher and put on a training program, etc until I improve. Am I crazy or do any of these sounds backwards and impossible?! We need to go back to "old School" and leave teaching up to teachers and KEEP political leaders and parents out of it.

Mrs. Howard's picture
Mrs. Howard
7th and 8th Special Education Teacher

I agree with Kimberly, my district was in the same position. We were cut back days on our instruction as well. But one thing that I am learning is that we can not change the adminstrators, but we as teachers have to learn to adapt and do the best that we can. Not only have they cut back days, but what about the constant interruptions duing instruction time. I would take time and and reflect on the time lost and find ways to make up for it. Maybe in the cafteria during lunch you can do a class competetion, or at break. Teachers are very creative now we have to take that creativity and make it work for us! If we could just teach and not have to deal with all of the other issues I promise America would not be as far behind as other countries.

Christian Wilder's picture

Education is the forerunner for success in any career that anyone choose. It is sad to know that as much power that it has to affect everyones life, it still does not get the respect it should in the United States. Children today are coming from diverse backgrounds with situation much worse than when we as children were growing up in school. Some children have no parental support at home, some are doing good to have a home, parents may not understand the curriculum as enough to assist their children, and more parents are having to work harder and longer to ensure needs are being met at the home. With all of those factors in mind, how can we justify giving students more time at home and less instructional time in school. The curriculum in my state requires so much more in depth teaching and understading for the students, that it is unfair for us to take the time away in order to accomodate a budget shortfall. The state is requiring more from educators with less time. I think that a plan needs to be developed and the United States need a plan fast. The children are our future and it is our duty to shape and mold them into productive citizens that continue to carry on the legacy of greatness in the United States of America. It is important to not deprive our children of the great education system that is in place and that can work if it is utilized and implemented correctly.

kelly's picture

I find it very disheartening, along with the others, that the expectations and standards we are held to continue to increase while adminstrators and law makers (many of whom have never set foot in a classroom) continue to cut everything. More kids and less supplies, more responsibilities and less money, more headaches and no aspirin. While I agree that we need to be as creative as possible in an effort to reach our kids, what we could really use is some possitive support.

Ashley Tisdale's picture
Ashley Tisdale
Elementary Teacher & Grad Student

I have been teaching in Canada for the past two years and recently I moved overseas with my husband who is in the U.S. military. I am yet to teach in the U.S., however, reading about the current state of the U.S. education system makes me sit back and wonder how the government can continue to cut funds. If anything, they need to be contributing more. It angers me to see that the government is willing to spend billions, not millions but BILLIONS, of dollars on space travel, weapons, rebuilding OTHER countries, and desert the one thing that this country needs in order to prosper. It's a sad situation and, now, not only do educators have to teach in overcrowded classrooms with minimal resources for less pay; we also have to find a solution to the problems we currently face as well as the problems that will arise due to budget cuts.

Vanessa's picture

At my school, we are trying to fix our whole school schedule and the request from the teachers seems to all be focused on one topic: more instructional time with students. If only we could have more time to work individually with each student after the main lesson/activity has taken place. This reoccuring statement does not seem to reach the administration. The schedule that they are trying to pass is a schedule with more classes and less time. This does not make sense and it is no wonder that when people from the U.S. compare educational statistics with other countries one of the big differences is that those other countries have their students longer both daily and yearly. How is is far to compare student outcomes when the time in which they have to learn is significantly different?

Anne OBrien's picture
Anne OBrien
Deputy Director of the Learning First Alliance

A couple points...

1) I love Vanessa's comment here: "The request from the teachers seems to all be focused on one topic: more instructional time with students."

Kimerly makes a similar point - that teachers KNOW students need more time in the classroom but can run into challenges trying to get it.

I wish that more outside the education community could hear these voices. So often in the mass media teachers are portrayed kind of selfish, interested only in keeping their summer vacations and ending their work day at 3pm. It is such an unfair characterization of teachers, as ALL you commenters remind us.

And 2) Educators do need support if they are going to do their job well, and if our children are going to succeed in the flat world. We cannot just keep taking away resources from public schools, with resources meaning everything from time to teachers (leading to larger classes) to money for technology and art and music classes. While teachers are the ones who directly interact with children, they are not alone in the system. And if the system isn't set up to give them the opportunity for success, they will not have it.

But I have to hand it to Mrs. Howard. You have an incredibly positive attitude in a very demanding situation. And you are right. Every person has (at least in the vast majority of cases) power over his or her own actions. So we each have to do what we can, when we can. And while we are doing that, we can work with other stakeholders to try to ensure that the conditions around us will help our actions have the greatest possible impact.

Amy's picture


I work with The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS for short), a non-profit with more than 300 member schools in both North America and abroad. I read the post about extending learning times and thought some of your readers might be interested in checking out TABS at I completely agree that learning times should be extended, rather than cut. However, if we are unable to make that happen, more parents may want to look into boarding school for their children, as boarding schools provide learning 24 hours a day. Students are surrounded by their peers and gain real-life experience, as well as school learning. One of the best ways to check out different boarding schools is to use TABS School Browser. You can enter the school name if you have a particular school in mind, or search by zip code, and even view an A-Z listing of nearly 300 member schools. Each school has its own page and profile with lots of key information, and you can request info from multiple schools at once. It's quite the time-saver!

Also, the TABS Guided Search tool lets you refine your search even more. You can search by gender, specialty, grade levels, and location. You can even add more targeted criteria including courses, arts, and athletic interests. It's perfect for those who know what they want--and helps those who don't to figure it out.

Check out both at

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