12/13/2012 03:40 pm ET | Updated Feb 12, 2013

Making Expanded Learning Time Successful

The American education system took a huge step forward. Five states have just approved the systematic expansion of learning time for 20,000 students. Select districts in CO, CT, MA, NY, and TN will add 300 hours to the school day and/or year to boost student performance and narrow the achievement and opportunity gaps.

A large and growing movement of educators, parents, community organizations, donors, and policy makers has advocated for expanding learning time for years. Research has proven over and over again that increasing students' time-on-task boosts academic performance, enhances social development, and expands access to engaging learning experiences.

But time alone doesn't guarantee student success. Time has to be high quality for it to be effective. It has to reach the students who need it most -- those who are struggling academically and who lack educational opportunities and support outside of the school. And, it has to be sustainable. In under-resourced and under-performing schools, expanding learning time successfully may require collaborative efforts between schools and community organizations that bring more resources to the table than schools alone can provide.

We hope this high-profile initiative yields insight into some of the pressing questions related to quality, equality, and sustainability with which the expanded learning field has grappled. What does quality learning time mean? Who participates? And how can it be sustained?

Quality: All time is not equal when it comes to impacting student engagement and achievement. Adding on extra hours to the school day or adding days to the school year will not in and of itself transform school effectiveness. It's the quality of learning time that determines its impact. Schools participating in this three-year pilot initiative will be held accountable to quality requirements -- that expanded time be data-driven, feature high-quality teaching and curriculum, and balance academic content with hands-on, engaging enrichment programs. But setting the bar at 300 hours could risk diminishing returns in under-resourced schools if schools are not well supported in meeting these quality standards. This is where community partners come in -- their expertise and resources have an important role to play if high-quality expanded learning is to become a norm in more schools and communities. A central challenge in scaling up this approach and reaching 20 million students will be to determine how to formally integrate community partners into the expanded time equation such that school leaders and teachers won't be left to do it alone.

Equality: Some believe that expand learning time must be made available for all students in participating schools. On one hand, this makes a lot of sense -- every student can benefit from the time -- but equal school time does not result in equal educational opportunity. Factors outside of the school -- parent engagement, availability of learning materials in the home, accessibility of summer learning experiences -- play significant roles in determining student success. Consider summer learning, in particular -- if students lack access to structured summer learning experiences, they are going to fall behind regardless of how many hours the school day operates. So long as more affluent students participate in vacations, camps, and other enriching activities at a disproportionately higher rate while their disadvantaged counterparts go unsupervised and unengaged, summer learning loss will continue and achievement gaps will remain. We believe that providing targeted services for the students who need the expanded time the most is the most realistic and effective starting point for closing achievement gaps and leveling the playing field.

Sustainability: Without a clear path to paying for expanded school days and years across the entire education system, is a 100 percent participation goal economically feasible? Schools participating in this initiative are drawing from federal, state, and philanthropic support to deliver those 300 extra hours of learning. Undoubtedly, one day in the near future, more school districts will seek to systematically expand learning time for at-risk students. In today's fiscal environment, it's unrealistic to depend on significant increases in public funding to expand learning time across the board. Again, we point to the community as a partner in this effort. Expanded learning may be more sustainable if community partners -- and their donors -- are brought into the fold and assume part of the responsibility for those extra hours. Keep in mind that many community organizations working in schools are already achieving many of the same goals of this new initiative, and are doing so by employing school teachers, aligning instruction, and using high-quality curricula. And those same community partners are bringing millions in philanthropic funding to bear on the issue of time.

We applaud the news of expanded learning in these five states, and we hope that more and more schools and school districts are finding different ways to prioritize time as a key factor in student success. As the expanded learning movement picks up steam, it becomes more and more important that we set clear standards for quality, participation, and sustainability. In our experience, a targeted approach that provides quality learning opportunities to struggling students may well deliver the greatest impact with the resources available in the school community. Furthermore, an approach that brings community resources to the table to further enrich expanded learning time has the best chance for long-term sustainability and impact.