Reimagining the School Day: More Time for Learning

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Reimagining the School Day: More Time for Learning


Adapted from the May 16, 2011, opening address to the forum by M. Christine DeVita, founding president of The Wallace Foundation. DeVita retired in June 2011 after 24 years of service to Wallace.

For this forum on Reimagining the School Day, we want to envision an era in which it's recognized that the conventional six-hour-a-day, 180-day-a-year school calendar is not enough for many children, especially disadvantaged children who need more time for learning. We have gathered a group of people well equipped to help us in this exercise: city leaders, school superintendents, researchers at think tanks, heads of after-school organizations, foundation officers and federal officials. You are the ones who run institutions, set policy, connect leaders and guide thinking on education policy. You hold a piece of the solution for making progress.

Together, I hope we can begin to imagine a path forward.

But first, because facts are friendly, let me suggest that we need to confront five troubling realities.

First, despite progress, we still have a sizable achievement gap between white students and those of color. Consider these statistics:

White 4th and 8th graders on average score about 26 points higher than black children on assessments, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.1 th That's important in part because the chances that a student will complete college in less than six years vary based on his or her academic preparation, according to the Higher Education Research Institute.

College graduation rates vary dramatically by race and ethnicity. The four-year graduation rate for white students is nearly 38 percent, almost double the 21 percent rate for Mexican-Americans, and 29 percent rate for African-American students.

Although the picture improves if you look at six-year graduation rates, as of 2005 the United States was one of only two countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development where children's educational attainment did not exceed their parents'.

In today's globally competitive environment, we will not be able to maintain our leading position or our standard of living unless we improve the educational results for all our children.

Second, the traditional school calendar has remained unchanged since well before the publication of A Nation at Risk almost 30 years ago, despite growing evidence that it is insufficient to meet the needs of many poor kids.2

A large body of research suggests that a significant part of the achievement gap occurs because poor children lose more learning over the summer than their wealthier counterparts, and that this loss accumulates over time.

Children spend most of their waking hours outside school, and this time is often lost time.

About one quarter of children are unsupervised in the afternoon.3 Too many languish after school and over the summer - playing video games, watching television or just hanging out - activities that are negatively correlated with academic achievement, according to research for a forthcoming study we've commissioned from the Child Trends research group.

Unfortunately, the trend is moving in the wrong direction. In 2009, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that use of entertainment media by kids rose to 7 hours 38 minutes a day, with black children watching almost twice the amount of TV as their white counterparts.4

By contrast, reading held steady at a paltry 25 minutes a day.

Third, just adding extra time won't help, unless that time is spent in high-quality programs where kids are actively engaged in learning.

We know from decades of research since the early 1960s that the more time children spend "on task," that is, focused on learning, the more they will learn.5

This implies that just adding more time in school is not enough - it means more time in which children are actively engaged in learning. So improving the quality of instruction is just as important as increasing the time for it.

Fourth, public revenues for schools and nonprofits alike are shrinking and are not expected to recover for some time. Private dollars will not make up the difference.

Given the national debate about deficits, expansive new federal programs are unlikely.

Cities are facing tough times, and states will experience one of the toughest budget years on record in fiscal 2012.6

Budgets are being slashed and services eliminated.

Some school districts are shortening the school day or year, thus actually reducing learning time.

We can't look to private giving to make up the difference. Individual donations to charity dropped 20 percent from 2007 to 2009, according to IRS data, a decline steeper than previously estimated.7 Foundation giving has been relatively flat over the past few years, and experts think it will take several more years to return to peak 2008 levels.8

And fifth, we are fighting among ourselves for the limited funding that does exist, creating divisions between those who want government funds to be used in schools and those who see it as a critical revenue source for after-school programs.

There's a fiery debate over whether 21st Century Community Learning Center funds should be permitted to support a longer school day. Some advocates and providers of services for youth argue strongly for it, and some against it.

We are even fighting over terminology - expanded learning, expanded learning time or extended learning time.

But this is about more than semantics. The painful result is that policymakers are growing impatient, and we risk alienating our supporters with what they see as turf warfare at the expense of the interests of our children and teens. If we cannot come together, we risk getting nowhere fast and squandering an opportunity.


These feel like five tough facts - achievement gap persistence, the inertia of traditional notions of school time, the need for quality, shrinking revenues and infighting. What do they mean for us? Let me suggest a few implications.

Although some educators, policymakers and others are paying more attention to finding better ways to increase learning time, strong forces are working for maintaining the status quo. As Ron Wolk quips in his new book, Wasting Minds, "Except for organized religion, no social institution has changed less in the past century than public education." So we need to be prepared to work incrementally over time - it will be a marathon and not a sprint.

We are entering what is more likely a period of experimentation than a wholesale redefinition of the school day. It's crucial, therefore, that we document and learn from innovations, and gather reliable information about what they mean for students, so we can reduce the uncertainty about what drives success and what dampens it.

Given that a massive new federal program is not in the cards, decisions to expand learning time are likely to be made one city, one district and one state at a time. Solutions may differ widely.

There is one other implication, and it may be the biggest. Because we live in a resource-constrained era, we need to change not only what we do - but how we work together across sectors. In recent years, urban government experts have concluded that cities can no longer directly provide all the services that citizens need. Instead, they can succeed only by working with and through other institutions. Scholars like Stephen Goldsmith call this "governing by network." If that is true for municipal government, in these tough fiscal times it is doubly true for public education. If we are to take advantage of all the resources a community has to offer that could benefit children, it is high time we recognize that schools can't do it alone.

That means new ways of working. We need more trust and data flowing between schools and afterschool providers; we need the expanded-learning-time and the after-school communities to find common ground; and we need government, foundations and nonprofits to find more efficient ways to work together - matching opportunities, maximizing learning and minimizing duplication.

This new way of working will require leaders who can help bridge different sectors, build a shared vision with an emphasis on quality, and commit to collecting reliable data that make measurement, collaboration and accountability possible.


In light of all this, here's a friendly challenge:

To nonprofits serving children: Can we gather solid information about whom we serve and the contributions we make to youngsters' learning and growth?

To schools: Can we take advantage of expanded learning opportunities and share data with afterschool providers so they can be part of the solution?

To federal and state policymakers: Can we permit more flexible use of funds?

To local government: Can we bring together the community's resources on behalf of all children, knocking down bureaucratic walls when necessary?

And to foundations: Can we find better ways to work together and share lessons learned so that the same mistakes don't need to be made over and over again?

In my view, the only answer to these questions is, "we can and we should," because despite the current difficulties, there are glimpses of momentum and reasons for optimism. Here are seven:

  • New legislation and federal policies show that the idea of more time for learning is slowly moving onto the national education agenda.
  • Think tanks including RAND, Education Sector and the Center for American Progress are analyzing what is known. Membership organizations like the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers have teams at work. And issue organizations have formed to build awareness and understanding, including the National Center on Time and Learning and the National Summer Learning Association.
  • Some of our nation's largest cities are expanding summer school, while nonprofit organizations that provide additional summer learning opportunities like BELL, Higher Achievement and Horizons National are seeing increasing demand for their services.
  • For the first time, more than 25 cities from Baltimore to Fort Worth are systematically collecting data on after-school programs and, increasingly, helping improve their quality.
  • Foundations, which can generate innovations and knowledge, are also investing. Wallace is joining a number of philanthropies committed to this issue, including the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Victoria Foundation and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, to name just a few.
  • Growing media interest is raising public awareness.
  • Finally, and crucially, we have more evidence than ever about the power of more learning time for those who need it most. As an Education Sector report put it, the "addition of high-quality teaching time is of particular benefit to certain groups of students, such as low-income students and others who have less opportunity for learning outside of school." 9

Let's remind ourselves that none of this was true a decade ago.

Through our collective wisdom, action and sacrifice, we can create a world that places all our resources in service of the goal of ensuring that all of our children - especially those with the greatest needs - grow up with the 21st -century skills, attitudes and habits that will help them lead productive, rewarding lives.

A century and a half ago Alexis de Tocqueville described this collective work as "self-interest, rightly understood," and he found it an essential ingredient in the success of the American democratic experiment.

The same idea was captured centuries earlier in an African proverb: "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others."

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  1. Alan Vanneman, Linda Hamilton, Janet Baldwin Anderson, Taslima Rahman, Achievement Gaps: How Black and White Students in Public Schools Perform in Mathematics and Reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, National Center for Education Statistics/ U.S. Department of Education, 2009, iii.
  2. "By the 1960s, most schools in the country had settled on a schedule of 170-180 days, five days a week, six and a half hours a day. This has remained the standard in American public schools since then: a 2004 survey by the Council of Chief States School Officers found that 35 states require the school year to be 180 days or longer, and six require between 175 and 179 days; the same survey found 34 states require five or more instructional hours per day (or no less than 900 hours per year)." Elena Silva, On the Clock: Rethinking the Way Schools Use Time, Education Sector, 2007, 2.
  3. America After 3 PM, Afterschool Alliance, 2009, 3.
  4. The negative effect of high levels of media use is explored in a Kaiser Family Foundation study, which finds that youth with high media use (more than 16 hours per day) reported getting lower grades than those with light media use (less than three hours per day). Black children spend nearly six hours and Hispanics just under five-and-a-half hours, compared to roughly three-and-a-half hours a day for white youth. The report, based on a survey of 2,000 youngsters ages 8 to 18, reflects the reality that children and teens often use more than one media device simultaneously. Victoria J. Rideout, Ulla G. Foehr and Donald F. Roberts, Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year- Olds, Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010.
  5. "Past research has established a link between relevant academic learning time and student achievement. Although instructional time, in and of itself, is not sufficient, it is necessary in order to provide the relevant academic learning time. Compared to other developed countries, students in the United States receive fewer hours of instruction—799 per year compared with 861 in Finland, 911 in the Netherlands, 928 in Japan, and 1,079 in Korea (Silva, 2007). Furthermore, the American school calendar is notable for its long, formal summer break, especially when compared to school calendars in other countries. Some countries have shorter, more equally spaced breaks, while others have formal mechanisms to help students retain over breaks what they learned in school (Wiseman and Baker, 2004)." Jennifer Sloan McCombs, Catherine H. Augustine et al., Making Summer Count: How Summer Programs Can Boost Children's Learning, RAND Corporation, 2011, 19-20.
  6. "The current fiscal year (fiscal year 2012) is shaping up as one of the states' most difficult budget years on record. Some 44 states and the District of Columbia projected budget shortfalls totaling $112 billion for 2012." Liz Schott and LaDonna Pavetti, Many States Cutting TANF Benefits Harshly Despite High Unemployment and Unprecedented Need, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2011. http://www.cbpp​.org/files/5-19-11tanf.pdf
  7. Holly Hall, "Americans Gave a Lot Less in the Recession Than Experts Predicted," Chronicle of Philanthropy, April 22, 2011.​
  8. Steven Lawrence, Moving Beyond the Economic Crisis: Foundations Assess the Impact and Their Response, Foundation Center, November 2010.
  9. Silva, On the Clock, 1.