George Lucas Educational Foundation

Alternative Schedules: A New School Day Dawns

Extended classes enhance learning and achievement.
By Denise Kersten Wills
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Credit: Getty Images

PREDICTION: U.S. education will adapt school time to match student needs.

Principal Robin Harris doesn't yet have the test results to prove that adding two hours to the school day at Fletcher Maynard Academy, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last year helped the school's primarily low-income, minority students catch up to their peers.

But even though catching up academically wasn't the original reason for Harris's change to the school day (she hoped to afford students more time on academics and enrichment), Harris says she's confident the new schedule has boosted learning. She points to signs that might be commonplace in some schools but are minor miracles here: children naming math as their favorite subject, or discussing the many books they've read in their free time. "That's hard to measure," Harris says, "but it's anecdotal evidence toward progress."

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The push to extend both the 6.5-hour day and the 180-day year began with the charter school movement in the 1990s and has become increasingly popular in traditional public schools. It's a trend we expect to gain momentum this year as educators search for ways to meet the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act without sacrificing important subjects that aren't tested.

Fletcher Maynard is part of the Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time Initiative, the first statewide effort to lengthen the school day or school year. School districts such as those in Pittsburgh and Miami have already increased classroom time in their lowest-scoring schools, and several states may soon follow suit.

"The time is right," says Jennifer Davis, president and cofounder of Massachusetts 2020, a nonprofit organization that has led the state's learning-time initiative. She points out that adding academic time was one of five major recommendations in the landmark 1983 report "A Nation at Risk" -- the only recommendation never acted on. "The traditional school schedule is outdated for many reasons," she says. "We've raised standards in American education and expect more from students than we ever have."

According to Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit group Education Sector and author of a recent report on school time, research shows that poor and minority students, who tend to have fewer learning opportunities outside of school, stand to benefit most from additional classroom hours.

Silva adds one word of caution: Simply tacking on extra time to each class isn't sufficient. Schools should think creatively about how best to redesign the schedule to promote learning. "This has tremendous potential," she says, "but only if it's very well planned."

Extending school hours isn't the only reason districts are rethinking the traditional academic calendar. Some high schools have postponed their start times because research shows that adolescents are naturally groggy in the morning, and alert later in the day. A study of high schools in Minneapolis, for example, found that pushing back the first bell until at least 8:30 A.M. improved students' grades and reduced dropout rates and student depression.

In other parts of the country, especially rural areas, districts have cut transportation and utility costs by switching to a four-day week, with longer hours on school days. Administrators say the schedule boosts student attendance and teacher morale. But, adds Silva, "it's probably questionable in terms of achievement gains." On the other hand, attendance and teacher morale are surely part of the solution.

Denise Kersten Wills is a freelance writer in Washington, DC.

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The current predominant model of compulsory public schooling is both relatively recent, yet fundamentally unchanged since the 1890's. With a structure based primarily on business and industry needs, it is clear to all who question, that the entire process needs to be re-designed with a new mission, and an honesty with regard to what we are doing and why, and what actually happens to children's minds and spirits during that mass of hours spent in desks from kindergarten through 12th grade. In my opinion our bar has been set embarrasingly low, the the detriment of millions of our fellow citizens. The acceptance of mediocrity and of banality, the waste of immeasurable time and money, and the sanctioned rudeness to diverse intellects and spirits is galling.

There is a bigger better vision than this, and it will emerge, but with much resistance from governments and unions, who will be unable to accept the fearsome boldness, individuality and freedom required in the new design.

Mr. S. Compton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although a later start time and a longer day sound nice, in reality there are very little changes. We (Landmark Middle) have been starting at 9:00 for two years now, and the only change is that children are milling around the campus longer in the morning. Parents still drop their kids off at 6:30 and 7:00 as they leave for work, so there is no benefit to sleeping later. Kids are still going to bed at 11:00, midnight, 1:00 am or later, and the later ending time (3:30) keeps us from doing after school tutoring, etc., that we used to do. Students are actually more spent by the end of the day, with teachers not far behind. As far as No Child Left Untested goes, there have been no gains at all.

Joy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How can more time doing something students don't see as important or relevant improve their achievement? We may see temporary improvement in test scores, but that does not mean that we have improved the student's knowledge, skills, or abilities.

It's time that we revamp high schools so they are more relevant to the lives students will have in their future. Adding interesting curriculum alternatives and more engaging ways to obtain learning will do more to foster student achievement than more time on meaningless tasks.

MrsT.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, I agree. They need more physical activity throughout the day. All of them, not just the already athletic ones.
They need sun too.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the relevancy issue. Many students find no value in the education they are currently receiving. We don't need more of that. We need to plan better, more meaningful learning opportunities, and the way to do that is to give the extra time in the school day to teachers. For many teachers, there is no dedicated time in the school day to collaborate with others and to work as teams in planning instruction and discussing the particular learning needs of students. High standards for teachers and students require different ways of thinking and working. For teachers to continue to work in isolation is to insure that the status quo is maintained.

joe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The important thing is to restructure the school day, the extended time sould not be an add-on to the current day. The students that are most affected by the longer day benefit primarily because they experience more. The extended day leads itself to a wider variety of curricular studies, or at the least, a deeper experience of mandated studies.

Thelma Farley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Beacon Day School in Oakland, California is one of a few schools that have operated for 25 years on a truly year round schedule, September through 3rd week of August with national holidays and usual breaks for Winter Holidays (2 weeks) and Spring break (1 week) End of summer (10 days in late August).
Our population reflects that of many public schools in urban areas, as does our teaching staff. The proof the pudding is that our students annually test two years beyond grade level. Check us out. We could be the answer to public education.

S Roach's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree and cannot see more time in school being more productive for those students who have no interest or drive to learn. I also agree we need to teach with relevance to the students' lives; without the relevance they do not see any topic as being important enough to pay attention or even come to school. I am also not convinced that the majority of students leaving high school are any better or smarter than we were or even our parents who went to a one-room schoolhouse.

I believe our school systems are not going to be changed without a change in the culture of our nation. The culture will not be changed until our system of dependency on government assistance is modified to remove the masses that produce more children to this uninterested and unmotivated society. No wonder foreign students come to America and excel. They have the motivation to do better (than their parents) and the interest level to succeed in any school system, even in the United States.

Foreign countries do send their students to school for longer hours and days in a year. However, many of those countries do not attempt to teach every single student in a public institution. Many are routed to the workforce earlier as they see the interest level of the student, while those that are inclined to go on and excel in school have the ability to do so. In both cases, those students are more productive in their own abilities than our students are limited to.

I do not believe the problems lie in only the schools' approach and the time allotted to teach the students. If they do not want to learn or have no incentive to learn then one hour is as good as ten for them. Students as well as parents need an incentive to do more and better their lifestyle. They want for little in this world that they cannot already buy, even on welfare and food stamps. And it becomes increasingly hard to find that relevance that will cause a child to want to take interest learn more.

You can lead a horse to water every hour of the day, but if he is not thirsty....

Kevin Gibson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My school goes by the "block schedule" in which we have 4 classes a day. I for one am happy about this scheduling. this gives studends a fresh start each semester, instead of each new school year. Even though these classes are long, they teach us more in this time than the 7 or 8 period schedule of short classes in one day. And with block scheduling we don't have to carry as many books, wheras with 7-8 period schedule students have to carry about 3 or 4 books at any given time.

kali1's picture

My class hours starts from early in the morning. And around afternoon it gets over after that i also need to go to my work and I reach my home very late though you know its not the quantity we sleep its the quality we sleep. So I am happy with my daily scheduleing.

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