Expanded Learning Opportunities
The idea of our schools being open six hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year is obsolete…all of our students need to be accelerated academically. We can’t—the best teachers can’t—do enough during the school day. So another hour, another hour-and-a half, another two hours of academic enrichment, of work in a computer lab, of work in debate, of whatever it might be, giving our kids the chance to build those skills, build upon what’s going on, we have to do it. Our students just desperately need more time. Our students need a reason to be excited about going to school every day. And for every child, it’s not going to be algebra, it’s not going to be biology...the only way to provide students with a well rounded set of opportunities is by thinking very differently about time—before school, lunch time, after school, Saturdays, weekends, over the summer.
--U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, October 22, 2009, at The Children’s Aid Society’s National Community Schools Practicum Conference in New York City
Extended learning time and expanded learning opportunities have been central to the community schools strategy since its inception—both here in New York City, where The Children’s Aid Society has partnered with our public schools since 1992, and around the country. Our popular guidebook, Building a Community School, beginning with its first edition in 1993, discussed an “extended school day” that was planned to “dovetail with the class work children are engaged in throughout the regular school day…it should be instructional and allow for hands-on projects that enable students to apply what they have learned in class.”
Of course, we at Children’s Aid and our colleagues in the broader community schools field, nationally and internationally, have learned a great deal about how to implement these dual learning concepts (extended time and expanded opportunities) over the past two decades. We have learned to integrate well developed academic enrichment curricula, like KidzLit, KidzMath and Foundations, into our daily after-school and summer camp programs. We have jointly developed and implemented, with our Department of Education colleagues, enrichment opportunities during the regular school day—for example, at the outset, we partnered to create a series of Town Meetings that taught important life skills to young adolescents. We’ve organized interesting and engaging programs in schools on Saturdays and school holidays. And, working with third-party evaluators, we have learned how to assess the benefits of students’ regular participation in these high quality and engaging programs. For example, our colleagues at ActKnowledge documented through a three-year, quasi-experimental study that young adolescents in six of our middle schools showed statistically significant differences in academic achievement and a host of positive youth development outcomes, compared to their non-participating peers, as a result of their regular participation in high quality expanded learning opportunities.
Recent events in the worlds of public policy and private philanthropy have called attention to these “timely” ideas. In the nation’s Capitol, policymakers have debated how to strengthen the Federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program through extended school day and school year provisions. And several national foundations have created new grantmaking priorities and strategies around time and learning. There is cause for both optimism and worry in these developments.
The optimism lies in the potential to apply years of solid research in ways that we know can make a significant difference in the lives of children, especially poor children. As far back as the late 1980s, researcher Reginald Clark documented very clearly the role of the non-school hours in promoting the school success of economically disadvantaged children. He observed that academically successful low-income children spent at least 20-35 hours per week engaged in high-yield learning activities outside of school. These activities gave children a chance to practice their academic skills while engaged in activities they chose (such as reading for pleasure, talking with knowledgeable adults, playing strategy or word-oriented games). More recently, Education Sector published a very useful monograph entitled On the Clock, which carefully reviewed a body of compelling research about time and learning. The report emphasized that any extended-time proposal must focus on providing the right kind of time—that is, time that promotes active engagement in rich learning experiences.
The cause for worry is that under-defined policy might allow schools to merely extend the school day without expanding students’ learning opportunities. Under the very real pressure to demonstrate test score gains, schools might be tempted to conduct more test prep, drill students for longer hours in phonics and ask them to memorize more vocabulary lists. This doesn’t qualify as first-rate education during the regular school day, but it typifies instructional practice in all too many of our public schools, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. One thing is certain: doing more of what isn’t working during the regular school day is not the right direction. Rather, public and social policymakers can learn from the positive experience of community schools across the country and the world. As we highlight in this issue of Partnership Press, community schools offer a solid history of extending learning time and expanding learning opportunities—a two-part strategy that has demonstrated results through integrated partnerships between schools and knowledgeable community resources.