Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Extending the School Day At DCPS

There has been a lot in the news lately about expanded learning time (see here, here and here for some examples). While media outlets and individual writers have taken a variety of stances on increasing the amount of time students spend in school, their analyses, sadly have not really focused in on how extending the school day (or school year) might occur here in DC.

The prevailing research on expanded learning time is fairly straight forward; essentially it says that by extending seat time, educators gain valuable instructional time with their students, which (according to the National Center on Time and Learning) allows them to do things like “cover more material and examine topics in greater depth; build-in more project-based and hands-on learning; individualize and differentiate instruction; and answer students’ questions.” Other benefits include greater attention to data collection, more opportunities to take elective coursework and opportunities for more group discussion for both students and teachers.With a description like that, expanded learning time certainly seems like the silver bullet we’ve been hoping for that can single handedly “fix” our ailing system of public education here in the District. However, it is important to recognize a few key things. First, “expanded learning time” can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Second, how students spend additional time is what determines the positive impact on learning and there are many models of “expanded learning time” that haven’t been proven to yield results. (Click here for a write up of how it worked in Miami)

Starting with the first point, recently introduced legislation for extending the school day in DC (GGW’s Ken Archer along with Council Members Mary Cheh and Yvette Alexander have proposed this model) proposes extended learning time in the form of an additional 30-60 minutes of classroom time.

While extending the school day by either of the proposed amounts may indeed increase student achievement, but at what cost and what do we as a city risk by taking this gamble?  The Afterschool Alliance wisely points out “the costs per hour (for teacher led instruction) are two-to-three times higher than at CBOs” making this a very costly (and as of right now un-teachers union approved) option. Furthermore, proposals to lengthen the school day by just a 30 or 60 minutes still leave a large chunk of time where students will be unsupervised absent supplemental programming. Let’s say Mary Cheh’s original legislation to lengthen the school day by 30 minutes went through, so instead of ending school at 3:00 students ended school at 3:30. Most parents still aren’t home from work until 5:00pm or later meaning supplemental programming for students would still need to occur between 3:30 and 5:00pm at the very least. Problem is all those funds that used to go to non-profits and charters who covered those hours went to funding that half an hour school day expansion for the masses.

What this approach means in reality is that many students, from the most underserved and lowest performing schools will actually lose 3.5 hours of extended learning time once the resources (like 21st Century Learning Center funds) are yanked to fund a half hour expansion. Furthermore, returning to point two, this approach fails to account for the second key element- how time is spent matters. The beauty of the current partnership that exists between CBOs and the DCPS OST is that the learning activities students engage in are different from the traditional classroom model. The pace and curriculum of afterschool programs are often the same as, or very similar to, the core curriculum standards of DCPS but the types of exploratory activity based learning and enrichment that are utilized allows students who may struggle to retain concepts in a traditional classroom setting to thrive. This is not an anecdotal observation- the positive impact that this model of extended learning time has on impacting the achievement gap has played out in numerous research efforts and has been quickly adopted by numerous communities including Boston and New York.

Education reform in DC must be systemic and broad based, but above all must take into account the pockets of education that are actually working. We cannot keep guessing about what might work and playing shell games with funding. We need data and outcomes, we need best practices and most of all we need not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The city should absolutely explore ways to close the achievement gap between is lowest performing students and its upper tier, however we cannot afford to dismantle the system of high performing partnerships between schools and CBOs in the hopes that we can master the extended day model- instead we need to leverage what we have and what we know works. This is one instance where there is no need to reinvent the wheel- just continue to refine, perfect and bring to scale what we already have.