A matter of time

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Marquette Elementary

Photo by Ronnie Wachter

Marquette Elementary

In Chicago, where the school day is short, Marquette Elementary Principal Paul O’Toole did something unusual: He spent about $170,000 in grant money last year to extend the school day by one hour for middle-grade students, bringing their daily instructional time more in line with national norms.

Marquette’s experiment was not an instant success. Teacher assignments had to be shuffled, in part because the school departmentalized at 7th and 8th grade, and teachers had to master new lessons. Despite the additional learning time, test scores were flat in 2009: Marquette’s 6th- through 8th-graders scored below district averages on value-added measures (which compare a school’s gains on state achievement tests to demographically similar students elsewhere in the district).

Still, Marquette remains committed to the effort at least until 2011, when grant funds from Atlantic Philanthropies run out. O’Toole has reworked student and teacher schedules this year to curb suspensions—which rose because students were acclimating to a new discipline system and a longer school day—and make better use of the extra time.

O’Toole points out that new learning strategies do not always show results right away, and that research strongly supports the benefits of extra time. Already, suspensions are declining, he adds. “Hopefully, we’ll see a rebound this year and continue to see a dramatic improvement in student behavior.”

Marquette’s experience illustrates a host of studies that show extra learning time can benefit students, especially low-income students, but results depend on how the extra time is used. A Catalyst Chicago analysis of statewide data echoes that idea: The 100 Illinois school districts with the most learning time posted only moderately better student performance than the 100 districts with the least time. Research from the 1990s shows only a small correlation between improved learning and more time in school, and suggests that “time-on-task” (the time a student spends actually engaged in lessons) is far more important.


WHY THIS MATTERS

Research suggests low-income and minority children benefit most from additional learning time, yet Chicago Public Schools has one of the shortest school days and years in the country. On the bright side, leaders here and across the nation are calling for extra time in school and federal funding could materialize to pay for it.

  • Chicago’s typical 9 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. school day is shorter than any other school day in Illinois and, over a year’s time, adds up to a month less than comparable urban districts like New York.
  • After-school programs offer a chance to boost time for learning and enrichment, and help build students’ self-esteem. But participation is spotty, especially for teens. Budget cuts have hit some programs hard.
  • Charter schools offer substantially more learning time, but they enroll just a small percentage of students.
  • Research shows good planning is essential to making the best use of extra time.

Good classroom management can maximize more time-on-task. But a 1998 report by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, based on classroom observations of more than 200 teachers, found that even the most organized and effective teachers simply could not provide enough instruction to make up for the short day.

Another concern: Schools have adopted a laser-like focus on reading and math because of the pressures of No Child Left Behind, leading to a narrowing of curricula, experts believe. The dilemma is compounded by a truncated school day. Catalyst found that Chicago’s 8th-graders spend a much higher percentage of their school day on language arts and math compared to their peers across the state.

“That’s incredibly problematic,” says Jennifer Davis, president and CEO of the National Center on Time & Learning, a Boston-based group that advocates for more school time. “If we need more time to make sure kids are proficient in [reading] and math, it shouldn’t cut into other subjects and enrichment opportunities.”

Davis, who has helped several schools in Massachusetts plan a longer school day, offers one fundamental lesson: “The more thoughtful a school has been about how to add time, the more successful it has been. Identify an educational focus and try to keep that at the heart of the redesign process.”

That’s an important lesson for Chicago, where a political drumbeat for more school time is building in tandem with a call by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for extended-learning time in high-poverty districts. A Catalyst analysis found that Illinois districts with the least learning time are more likely to serve poor students of color. And research by The New Teacher Project and Education Resource Strategies has found similar results across the country.

“The students that really need the time the most are getting less time in school,” Davis notes. “Their [higher income] peers are also getting very significant enrichment programming outside of the school day, so it’s a double whammy for low-income kids.”

Potentially, federal dollars could solve the problem of how to pay for more school time. Meanwhile, some schools in Chicago and elsewhere across the country are experimenting with models that give students more time without a huge price tag.

The 1998 Consortium report explains that Chicago’s short school day dates back to 1969, when schools adopted closed campuses because of safety concerns—eliminating recess, shortening lunch and cutting time at the end of the day.

But as the Consortium’s research makes clear, significant chunks of the school day are eaten up by administrative activities. The typical closed-campus schedule allows just 37 minutes for lunch and other non-instructional activities, but the Consortium estimated that at least 50 minutes are needed.

Chicago students are shortchanged even more by the annual school calendar, which includes 10 fewer days than the state’s annual minimum requirement of 180. The Illinois State Board of Education allows districts to use up to four of the 180 days for staff development and up to two for parent-teacher conferences. On average, Illinois districts have a 175-day calendar. But CPS has a waiver from ISBE to use four additional days for school improvement planning.

Factoring in the loss of more time because of testing, holiday celebrations and other activities, the Consortium estimated that Chicago schoolchildren are engaged in learning for just half of the officially scheduled time in school.

Timothy Knowles, director of the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute, says little has changed since the 1998 report.

“There’s just not enough time, in under six hours, to get done what needs to be done to prepare kids for the world as we now know it,” Knowles says. “That’s not to suggest doing the same thing for more time, but doing things that we do know work—with more time—is critical to prepare students for post-secondary education and [global competitiveness in the job market].”

From a mathematical perspective, the situation is a little better in the city’s high schools, where scheduled class time exceeds 330 minutes a day. But some educators, including the district’s executive director for school turnarounds, Donald Fraynd, point out that 46-minute class periods are too short to fully engage students and to accommodate administrative tasks.

As a result, Fraynd has introduced block scheduling in turnaround high schools. With this schedule, 90-minute classes meet four days each week; on Wednesdays, students attend 30-minute classes and are dismissed early so that staff can attend weekly collaboration meetings. Fraynd would like to see other schools adopt the change through union contract waivers.

Ed Klunk, a veteran Chicago educator and consultant for the Office of High School Programs, raises another concern: ensuring that teachers are adequately prepared for longer classes. Klunk says some selective high schools, which are known for attracting top teachers as well as students, have had success with the model, but previous efforts failed at some neighborhood schools, such as Manley.

Knowles, who previously served as deputy superintendent for teaching and learning in Boston Public Schools, says that similar efforts there produced mixed results. “It really comes down to the quality of teaching,” he says. “Things like block scheduling emerge, disappear and reemerge. The more successful [schools] had a very clear sense of the kind of teaching they were after.”

At the elementary level, some schools have pushed back against the district’s tight schedule. Teachers at Lincoln Elementary in Lincoln Park rejected the district’s request last year to adopt the standard closed-campus schedule; officials had hoped to save money on busing and asked Lincoln to switch so that bus schedules could by synchronized among schools.

Lincoln’s teachers turned thumbs-down on the plan, fearing the school would lose its “unique professional culture” and opting to continue taking their lunches during school hours. Principal Mark Armendariz says camaraderie is established when teachers “break bread together.” Teachers also didn’t want students to lose recess.

“The students are refreshed here,” Armendariz says. “They run to their heart’s content, and [afternoons] are more focused because they haven’t been sitting in a seat for six hours straight.”  The longer lunch period is good for parents, too. Armendariz encourages families to use the time for medical and other appointments so that students are not pulled out of class.

At Cameron Elementary in Humboldt Park, Principal David Kovach says teachers voted three years ago in a landslide to add 20 minutes of unpaid time to their work day. The time is not used for teaching; instead, teachers get extra planning time while students are at recess.

Similar waivers have been adopted at a handful of schools, including Uplift High, which narrowly accepted a waiver to increase the day by 20 minutes this year. More schools, however, have adopted another schedule modification that doesn’t technically add to the workday—but doesn’t add more learning time either. The modification adds 15 to 30 minutes to the school day and “banks” the extra time so that students are dismissed early once or twice a month while teachers attend staff planning meetings.

No matter how it’s cut, these are minor changes. Adding significantly more learning time—for example, an extra hour or more per day—will likely require union negotiation and more cash.

The Chicago Teachers Union says it supports more school time but demands “fair compensation.” That position put the brakes on a proposal made during contract talks in 2007, when financially strapped district officials reportedly asked teachers to accept a 45-minute extension of the day, sans extra pay. The next contract negotiations are in 2012.

Yet a firm cost for additional learning time is difficult to pin down. The CPS Office of Management and Budget estimates that it would cost about $280 million to add one hour to the day with the current school calendar, and another $25 million to add one additional day to the school year. Those estimates, however, simply assume that all staff would be paid salary increases in direct proportion to the increased time.

But a 2008 report by school finance expert Marguerite Roza from the University of Washington estimated much lower costs. Adding about two hours to the school day represents roughly a 30 percent increase in time, but could cost a district just 6 percent to 20 percent more in salaries, depending on the staffing model. For example, Roza found that relying on paraprofessionals to work with students would cost about 6 percent more, while paying stipends to a few teachers who opt to work a longer day would cost 12 percent to 15 percent more.

Other options would be cost neutral. Brooklyn Generation High School in New York has added 20 days to its school calendar by staggering vacation schedules for teachers. School leaders were able to contain costs and keep teachers’ work hours in line with New York norms, according to Melissa Lazarin of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Similarly, the United Federation of Teachers charter high school in New York simply shifted the start times for half of its teachers to add 30 minutes to the school day.

Roza, a proponent of per-pupil funding, says large districts could adopt the budgeting approach to target money to individual schools and allow leaders to decide the best and most efficient way to add time to their day.

In Chicago, CEO Ron Huberman says he hopes to implement per-pupil budgeting here in the next few years. (Top officials under former CEO Arne Duncan had similar plans that fell flat.) That might include “pricing out” various models for added learning time that schools could adopt, according to staff in the budget office.

At the very least, schools looking to add time can leverage a change in the 2007 teachers union contract that curbs costs for some after-hours activities by setting a flat rate of $33 an hour for non-instructional work activities. That change helped the Academy for Urban School Leadership offer more time at its contract turnaround schools.

Tim Cawley, AUSL’s chief of operations, says the organization wanted to add time at its 11 campuses last year, but found the cost—an estimated $52,000 for each instructional minute—out of reach. (AUSL now has 14 campuses.) Instead, AUSL opted to spend extra cash so that teachers could spend an additional hour on collaborative planning each week.

AUSL also spent additional funds to provide students a voluntary 10 minutes for breakfast each morning. (The district now offers universal breakfast, and AUSL is following suit.) Teachers are paid for supervision and, to maximize learning, ask students to read quietly.

“We know the cost of that hour and those morning minutes,” Cawley says. “We take it very seriously.”

Federal funds could potentially break the cost logjam. The state is aiming to get its share of $4.3 billion in Race to the Top grants for states, while Chicago, and nonprofit groups like AUSL, could win funds via the $650 million Investing in Innovation grant, known as the “i3 Fund.”

Moreover, the National Center on Time and Learning is backing the TIME Act, a bill promoted heavily by Massachussetts Sen. Ted Kennedy before his death. The original bill, shepherded now by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Rep. George Miller of California, called for a $500 million investment for extended-learning pilots in up to 10 states. The Center’s Jennifer Davis hopes to perhaps roll that proposal into a revamp of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Spokesperson Mary Fergus of the Illinois State Board of Education says state education leaders are planning to submit Race to the Top plans that call for extended learning time in what would be called Partnership Zones. Akin to Chicago’s turnaround schools, the model will employ dramatic intervention strategies at struggling schools. Fergus says it’s still unclear exactly how the extra time would be spent; perhaps on Saturday tutoring or simply more or longer days.

Huberman is also considering extended learning time as part of the district’s pitch for the i3 Fund grants. Sarah Kremsner, the district’s director for performance management, says extra learning time is a “core issue” and “absolutely on the radar” with top administrators, but she declined to give specifics.

As part of its performance management push, the Office of Extended Learning Opportunities, which works primarily with after-school programs, has been undergoing the grueling process of developing indicators to keep tabs on programs’ effectiveness. The move could signal more cuts down the road, on the heels of deep cuts earlier this year. After-school programs are not mandatory, but are a major strategy for adding more time for educational and enrichment activities.

At Marquette, O’Toole is plowing forward with the extended-day program, part of a larger $18 million effort called Elev8 that has expanded after-school programs and health and social services for students and their families in five Chicago schools.

Marquette is the only school to add an hour to the school day—a good way, says O’Toole, to ensure grant dollars help every student, not just those who sign up for after-school programs or use the school’s new health clinic.

This year’s fine-tuning includes re-scheduled art and gym classes, now held later in the day to help break up the afternoon. O’Toole also encouraged teachers to move one of the activities from the school’s new discipline program to the afternoon as well. In this activity, intended to head off fights before they start, students form a circle and tell each other what they like and respect about one another.

Now that middle grades are departmentalized, students rotate through extra periods of reading, math, science, social studies and languages.

Last year, an extra homeroom hour “gave us a good chance to build relationships with students,” says Courtney Rogers, a 6th-grade social studies teacher. But Rogers now likes the fact that students receive a double dose of instruction in several subjects. With the kinks largely ironed out, the extra time has become a powerful tool; Rogers says she finally has enough time during class to pull out maps out and plot data for lessons.

O’Toole says the school has won a victory by cutting suspensions. But Marquette is fighting an uphill battle to significantly raise achievement. According to the National Center on Time and Learning, high-poverty schools need even more time. The group recommends an extra 300 hours per year for low-income schools, about 90 minutes per day in a 180-day school calendar.

“An hour isn’t long enough,” O’Toole says. “It just puts us close to what other districts have.”
Knowles suspects that federal investments in extra learning time will likely impact a handful of schools, rather than entire districts, through turnaround efforts like the Partnership Zones idea.

“You’re going to see more examples like Marquette’s Elev8 program, but with the turnaround brand on the door,” says Knowles. “[That will enable] a subset of schools to lengthen the school day with some latitude for how they use the extra time. The big questions are, ‘Will it be scalable and will we see significant results?’”