05/11/2012 10:59 am ET Updated Jul 11, 2012

Why We Need a Longer School Day

Yesterday, the National Center on Time and Learning and the Ford Foundation announced the launch of the "Time to Succeed" Coalition, a group dedicated to -- gasp! -- more time in school. I added my name as a signatory, along with cosignatories such as Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin of KIPP and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, with great enthusiasm not because I'm a joykill who is looking to make kids "suffer" longer hours in school, but because I know without a doubt that if we don't provide more learning time for the students who need it most -- primarily those disadvantaged by poverty -- we will leave the bulk of these children unprepared for success in school and careers. That is not fair and is not the American way.

I founded Citizen Schools, a nonprofit education organization, seventeen years ago because I believed that we could do more with the 80 percent of students waking hours that were not spent in school. The achievement gap between low-income and high-income students is 30 percent to 40 percent higher than it was a generation ago. For most of the low-income students that Citizen Schools serves, the afternoon hours used to be an untapped resource. While their peers in middle and upper class families were getting extra tutoring, taking music lessons, and attending science clubs, our students could not count on the same experiences. Our idea was to level the playing field and ensure that all children have access to quality educational opportunities that help boost academic achievement and get them excited about learning.

Carol Johnson, Superintendent of Boston Public Schools and a cosignatory of "Time to Succeed," has described the need for more learning time as follows. Imagine all of our students running a race where high school graduation is the "finish line." In theory, all students start the race at the same time, with the same running gear and enthusiastic supporters on the sidelines. In reality, however, some of our students get a head start, fancy running shoes and an extra push from the adults in their lives. As a result, the students left behind might need some roller skates in order to catch up and reach the finish line on time. More learning time can serve as a set of roller skates for the students who need them.

To be sure, expanded learning time will only work as a school turnaround strategy if the additional time is used well. Otherwise, expanded learning time could degenerate into mediocrity or worse -- a modest extension of the learning day, using the same methods that
weren't working well for the first six hours. This type of more-of-the-same expanded learning time has been tried in too many schools and the evidence indicates that it usually fails to significantly improve student outcomes. Citizen Schools has built deep partnerships with schools in eight states to significantly increase learning time by at least 30 percent. Our "second shift" of trained educators and community volunteers collaborate closely with traditional day teachers and provide additional academic support and engaging learning opportunities, including "apprenticeships" where students work in hands-on projects with professionals from a wide variety of fields. We have seen that expanded learning time "done
right" -- a substantial increase in learning time, community partnerships, and more engaging content -- can erase and even reverse opportunity and achievement gaps.

More time in school does not have to be a drag in order to get real results. I've been asked, "Don't the kids hate being in school for longer hours?" The truth is that when the day is filled with hands-on, engaging learning experiences, our students most often prefer to stay in school longer hours. According to a letter that sixth grader Carlo from Santa Fe wrote to share with Members of Congress last month, "I thought staying in school until 5PM would be a waste of time." Carlo then goes on to say that he was, indeed, mistaken and the additional time has allowed him to get extra help in math and participate in exciting apprenticeships with local professionals, many of them scientists and engineers. He concludes, "I encourage parents to leave your kids in school two more hours. It helps and your kids will thank you because of the help and encouragement they get." Carlo is one wise middle school student.

Successful charter schools have been using longer school days and additional weekend and summer learning time for many years. More recently, a growing number of ambitious traditional public school leaders, many supported through federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) funding, are implementing expanded learning time.

At the Clarence Edwards Middle School in Boston, implementing expanded learning time was a game changer. In 2005, the school was one of the lowest-performing schools in the city and on the verge of closure.

Today, after lengthening the school day and using it as a catalyst to reimagine the entire day, the school is thriving as Boston's highest-performing middle school. Over the course of four years, the school eliminated the achievement gap for students in math and erased eighty percent of the state gap on literacy and science standardized tests. More broadly, Citizen Schools' expanded learning time partner schools in Boston showed greater growth in student learning than the city's heralded charter schools.

Charter and traditional public school leaders who have successfully implemented expanded learning time will tell you that they could not have accomplished the same results without more time. According to Mike Sabin, former principal of the Edwards Middle School, "I think what a lot of people can see from Edwards School is that you can turn around a district school and get dramatic acceleration of achievement.

But extra time is part of the equation. Extra time doesn't always make that happen, but I don't think there are many examples of it happening without extra time." As the architect of the expanded day at the Edwards School and now the Dever-McCormack School in Boston, Mike knows of what he speaks.

As the concept of expanded learning time gains momentum across the United States, the country has an opportunity that might come along once in a generation -- an opportunity to dramatically change the way we structure the learning day in order to transform chronically underperforming schools and provide all students with the education they deserve. That is why I support more learning time.