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A National Call for More Learning Time in Schools

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Over 450 education leaders from 30 states -- including superintendents, teachers, school board members, charter school leaders, policymakers, and foundation leaders -- gathered in Boston last week for the first National Convening of Expanding Learning Time. They gathered to listen, learn and discuss how breaking from the shackles of an antiquated school schedule of just 180 six-and-a-half hour days is fundamental to closing the achievement and opportunity gaps that plague the schools in our nation that serve our most disadvantaged students.

These thought leaders come together knowing that nearly all American schools still hew to a century-old schedule that developed when the level of knowledge and skills needed was much lower than what graduates need today. Yet more than 1,000 pioneering schools across the country have moved beyond those boundaries by adding significantly to the school schedule for all of their students. With typically two more hours in the day and often twenty additional days in the year, these schools offer their predominantly poor and minority students an enormously expanded opportunity to learn. The majority are charter schools whose autonomies include the ability to set a schedule they think will work best for their mission, not one imposed upon them by tradition or contract limitations. And now a growing number of innovative district schools have joined their ranks, converting to expanded-time schedules thanks to district, state and federal policy initiatives.

These schools add time for three reasons. They need more time to help students (especially through individualized support such as tutoring) to gain high academic skills; they seek to provide students a more well-rounded education with courses like foreign languages, science, and social studies and activities such as arts, physical education, drama, and apprenticeships; and they furnish teachers the time they need to collaborate, use data, and improve as professionals.

No one doing this work will argue that that adding time to schools is a "silver bullet." Time is a resource, much like money or autonomy, which can be invaluable or can be squandered. To be used well, time depends on key success factors, including outstanding people (both leaders and teachers), diligent use of data to drive individualization and instructional improvement, and a school culture that fosters high expectations and mutual accountability for everyone. These educational improvement "gears" of people, time, data and school culture, when fully engaged and meshed well together can and do achieve the audacious goal of overcoming the great disadvantage that holds back so many children of poverty.

This idea is not an unproven theory. Many expanded-time schools have generated extraordinary results. In some cases, they have completely closed the achievement gap, all while installing curricula with a richness rivaled only by elite private schools and those in the most upscale suburbs.

In fact, it is these successes and the promise they hold that have led President Obama and US Education Secretary Arne Duncan to boldly call for more learning time for schools serving high-poverty students and commit considerable federal resources to enable it. It is also why a growing number of urban districts -- from Houston to New Orleans to Pittsburgh -- have implemented expanded learning time as a core element of their educational improvement strategy. And the potential impact of more learning time is, ultimately, what is bringing so many people to Boston today.

Indeed, while so much in education reform can divide activists into warring camps, expanding learning time unites reformers around a shared vision of bringing excellence and breadth to our nation's most impoverished and struggling schools. The diverse roster of speakers focusing on expanded time at the convening included (to name just a few): Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers; KIPP charter school co-founder Dave Levin; Boston Superintendent Carol Johnson; Ford Foundation President Luis Ubiñas; Broader Bolder Approach co-Chair Pedro Noguera of New York University; Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean Kathy McCartney; Acting US Assistant Secretary of Education Michael Yudin and Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville. Few education conferences will ever have had such a blend of federal, state, district, charter, union, and academic and foundation leaders in the same room, discussing how to bring fundamental change to the status quo.

At the end of the day, the convening, sponsored by the National Center on Time and Learning and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, will showcase the trailblazers who have used more learning time to raise achievement, enrich education and empower teachers. It will examine the key goals for expanding learning times, the key policy drivers and many related issues such as the nexus between more time and turnarounds and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. And we believe it may well represent an inflection point as expanding learning time for schools serving high-poverty students moves from exciting experiments for the lucky few towards the norm for all who deserve and need it.