01/31/2013 06:25 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

School Time Is Money: Are More Hours Worth the Cost?

The nation's 15,000 school districts are as varied as the communities they serve, but in the post-recession era, there's one thing they all have in common. They're broke. And getting broker.

I have three criteria for identifying promising policies and practices to improve student learning. First of all, schools need something that will be effective. But once that's established, they also want something that's cheap and easy to implement.

Naturally, this trio of attributes is hard to come by. More often than not, "cheap," "easy" or both have to take a backseat to "effective." That can't stop us from trying, though. Schools face a double challenge right now. They need to make sure all students, not just some, graduate well-prepared for college and careers, and in many cases, they need to do it with fewer dollars. This means districts really need to target their already stretched resources where they will get the most bang for the buck.

Which brings me to the issue of increasing school time. The case for more time is promoted by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and recently got a big boost with the launch of the TIME collaborative -- a five-state, 11-district effort to raise student achievement by adding 300 more hours to the school schedule. Not everyone is on board, however. Some parents and teachers think longer school hours intrude on the time kids have to just be kids. Other parents like the idea, especially the extra supervision their children get and not having to worry about child care.

For me, I just want to know if it will work. Back to my criteria. Adding days and hours to the schedule is relatively easy, but it's definitely not cheap. More school time needs to be staffed, buildings need to be lit and heated longer, and students need to be transported on additional days, making it one of the most expensive policies to implement. Even so, if students gained a lot by being in school longer the extra costs may be worth it. But do they?

Research is not so clear. Last year, the Center for Public Education, where I work, analyzed the amount of time students are required to be in school in different countries . We found little relationship between time required and student outcomes. High-scoring Finland, for example, requires the least hours compared to low-scoring Italy which requires the most. Other research shows that more school time can relate to more learning, as long as the time is focused on academic learning. Year-round schooling can also be helpful by preventing summer learning loss and the need to spend the first weeks of school reviewing material that's already been taught, which is arguably a waste of the time schools already have.

Still the gains aren't always spectacular especially in relation to the expense. The TIME collaborative has the benefit of Ford Foundation money to support it. The participating school districts also have the flexibility to use their federal Title 1 dollars. We will likely learn a lot more about the relationship between school time and learning as they roll out their plans over the next few years. In the meantime, other districts might do better to look into some other possibilities before making the leap to more school time.

Among these:

• There is much more evidence that points to the impact of teaching and rich curriculum on student achievement than to more school time. Before adding hours for students, districts might want to look into investing in teachers, including professional development and yes, more time for them to collaborate. They should also assure all students have access to high-level subject matter during the time they're in school.

• Conduct an audit of the current schedule. There's often a surprising amount of unproductive time in the calendar, for example, school assemblies, transfer time between classes, testing days, not to mention the dreaded PA announcements which can all add up to nice bucket of time that could be recaptured for instruction. Schools may not be able to reclaim all of it, or want to, but it's worth a look.

• Look at attendance data. Students who aren't in school while their peers are lose out on instruction and fall behind. If this is a problem in the district, policies to prevent absenteeism might be the best investment. Be sure to pay attention to teacher attendance, too. Indeed, high teacher absenteeism can be the canary bird alerting district leaders to a potentially toxic school climate, which is bad on its own terms as well as being unproductive.

• Rather than add days to the school year, consider distributing existing days more evenly over the year. A shorter summer break is an easy way to prevent learning loss.

In the end, adding hours may be the way to go to improve student achievement. But school boards and superintendents should still be strategic and target the extra time to the students who stand to benefit most. And regardless of the strategies they pursue, the need to monitor progress to make sure they're getting the results they want. This will truly keep time on our side.