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Time to Learn: Benefits of a Longer School Day

In this excerpt from the book Time to Learn: How a New School Schedule Is Making Smarter Kids, Happier Parents & Safer Neighborhoods, the authors discuss how a longer school day can support achievement in reading and math while providing a richer, broader curriculum. The book discusses extended day success stories in public schools throughout the country, the impact on teachers and families, and benefits for English language learners and children with learning disabilities.

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Since the end of World War II, most American children have attended school for approximately six and a half hours per day. Most dismissal bells ring around 2:30 p.m., some as early as 1:30. That’s why, despite the widespread impression that children spend much of their time in school, the truth is they go to school for only about 20 percent of their waking hours. That’s right — about one-fifth of their waking hours. Basically unquestioned for decades, these numbers help explain why American families are so poorly served by their own public schools.

Time to learn: core ideas of the new school day

In this book we tell the story of a new school day, a new schedule already in place in more than a thousand public schools that offers a genuine solution to our educational crisis. A powerful, realistic, attainable transformation of American public education, the new school day reinvigorates children’s lives, dramatically improving academic success while narrowing the achievement gap, broadening and deepening what children learn, helping teachers become more effective, bringing greatly needed relief to parents, and making kids and neighborhoods safer by reducing juvenile crime, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, car accidents, and mindless television watching and videogame playing. These are large claims. If we didn’t have the evidence, we wouldn’t be making them.


Instead of narrowing the school curriculum to focus on reading and math, the new school day opens up the range of subjects students study and get exposure to. In new day schools, students explore music and the arts, a remarkable variety of enrichment activities, as well as a range of programs in social and emotional learning. All these activities contribute mightily to helping children receive a truly well-rounded education. There’s good evidence that the new school day improves the overall school learning climate by raising attendance and by reducing disciplinary referrals and what are blandly called “serious incidents.”

The new school day also produces that most elusive of academic results: striking improvements in test scores. We have lots more examples in the rest of Time to Learn, but for the moment, here’s a brief taste.

In Massachusetts, after just one year of the Expanded Learning Time Initiative, which added 30 percent (about two hours) to a redesigned school day in ten urban elementary and middle schools, the ELT schools not only improved their own performance; they improved faster than the rest of the state. The average proficiency rate — that is, the percentage of students scoring Proficient or Advanced on the statewide test known as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System — compared to the schools’ performance for the four previous years, jumped 44 percent in math, 19 percent in science, and 39 percent in English language arts.

Measured against statewide averages, the ten ELT schools began to make progress in the single most difficult task in public education these days: closing the achievement gap. In math they narrowed the gap modestly, by just 2.4 percent. In science they shaved it by nearly 15 percent. In English language arts, they took a huge bite out of the gap, narrowing it by more than 35 percent!

Another group of schools we talk about in this book are public charter schools belonging to the well-known Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP network: fifty-seven elementary, middle, and high schools serving fourteen thousand overwhelmingly low-income (80 percent) African American and Latino (90 percent) students in seventeen states (and the District of Columbia), with concentrations in Houston, Texas, Newark, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. KIPP schools all use 60 percent more time than the standard school schedule, going from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and involving some Saturday classes and several weeks during the summer. By every measure — national, statewide, and local — KIPP students not only improve themselves, they also outperform the great majority of their peers. Take KIPP D.C. Key Academy, in which 88 percent of eighth-grade students tested Proficient or above in math in 2006, more than three times the rate of D.C. eighth-graders as a whole (which was 27 percent); and 81 percent scored at least Proficient in reading, two and a half times the district total (32 percent). That same year 90 percent of KIPP Houston High School tenth graders passed the Texas statewide math exam, as compared to 49 percent of other Houston tenth graders. KIPP Ujima Village Academy in Baltimore was the highest-performing public school serving middle grades in the city in 2006; its seventh and eighth graders achieved the highest math scores in the state of Maryland.

These extraordinary results could be repeated for city after city, but let’s leave KIPP for the moment with this astonishing statistic. Nearly four-fifths of students who complete KIPP’s eighth grade (the network consists mostly of middle schools) have entered college; nationally, the proportion for low-income students is less than one in five.

The core idea

Our core idea is so simple and obvious we made it the title of this book: children need enough time to learn — to build the skills and develop the knowledge and well-roundedness required to work and thrive in the twenty-first century.

Of course time alone isn’t enough.

Nothing considered by itself is enough to turn schools around — not the most gifted teachers, most inspiring principals, newest buildings, or most up-to-date equipment. Time, however, is an indispensable foundation for new levels of student achievement and educational success. And, like any precious resource, it can be wasted. Simply tacking extra time poorly spent onto the current school schedule, for example, doesn’t get the job done.

How the new school day is different

In effective new day schools, teachers and principals talk constantly about how to make best use of time. They wrestle with finding the best ways to apply more time in core academic subjects, to help teachers incorporate more individualized instruction and project-based learning into their classes, and to balance added core academic time with more time for engaging enrichment in arts, music, drama, sports, and other essential aspects of a well-rounded education. They discuss and debate how to use data to inform their initial redesign plan for expanded time and then how to modify their approaches based on subsequent data. They work to balance added time for students with added time for teachers to work and plan together and to benefit from professional development. They blend more time for current teachers with the addition of time and services from outside individuals and community-based organizations. They use time as a tool to support other innovations and reforms.

When well used, added time bestows many blessings. Principals don’t have to choose between math and social studies, between reading practice and science, or between core academics and arts, music, drama, or sports. Because the school day isn’t so rushed, they’re having fewer disciplinary problems and seeing fewer special education referrals. Kids are getting more opportunities and more choices for enrichment than ever before. And the kids’ test scores are going up.

We think the evidence is clear — from teachers themselves as well as from test scores — that the new school day allows teachers to become far more effective in the classroom. A genuinely new school schedule uses significantly more time — ideally about two hours a day — to redesign the entire school schedule. Principals and teachers spend a good bit of up-front time planning how to use these new hours to deepen, enrich, and customize their program so students can:

  • Master core academic subjects
  • Practice new skills
  • Receive individualized instruction and tutoring
  • Get exposure to a broad array of topics
  • Experience the arts, music, drama, and sports

In this book we take you inside new day classrooms to show how children are using the new schedule to ask questions and to learn actively through projects, experiments, and hands-on use of newly gained skills. Children occasionally grumble about the new schedule at first, but the evidence is that they soon some to accept it. Some, surprisingly enough, downright love it. “The teachers answer my questions,” kids of all ages say over and over. How poignant! What else should school be about, if not answering kids’ questions? In one school that had begun the expanded schedule, the district had a funding crunch and reverted to the old schedule. Kids demonstrated in favor of keeping the new school day at the School Board meeting! One said he had friends who dropped out because they couldn’t keep up any more — they didn’t get their questions answered. How can anyone be satisfied with a school schedule that prevents teachers from answering their students’ questions?

We listen to teachers in new day schools who love the extra time, which means they can allow classroom discussions to flow more freely and still provide small group and individual teaching for students based on skill level. An expanded school schedule engages students more fully, and children learn better in a more stimulating environment. By reducing the pressure on the system to cram math and reading and science into too few hours, the new school day opens up the schedule for subjects that students enjoy and teachers like to teach. Asked about the impact of Massachusetts’ new school day on student academic performance, fully 70 percent of the teachers in new day schools said it was better (23 percent saw “no impact” and a tiny minority, 7 percent, thought it was worse).

Why it works

Teachers and principals have found that the new school day makes possible a series of fundamental changes.

First, students and teachers get more time on task. Students who fall behind get the time to catch up. Instead of experiencing the classroom as a place for failure and boredom, kids have success. Students who are already keeping up have a chance to explore more. In science, longer classes allow students to carry out experiments from beginning to end in a single session. No instructional technique benefits from a rushed school day.

“More time on task really makes a difference for our students,” says Dr. Jean Teal, principal of Miami Edison High School. “Kids can really get that intensive instruction they need, where their weaknesses lie. It gives more opportunity to work with students. Teachers can develop their lessons and have kids engage for longer periods of time, using all these best practices we’ve put into place with our students.” As one social studies teacher mourned after her school canceled the new school day for budget reasons, “The amount of material I could get through was amazing. You could introduce a concept, introduce primary sources to study it, have kids explore it in a group, and then come back and discuss the subject more in detail.” Students get more opportunities for experiential learning and enrichment activities. Arts, music, drama, and recess—most of which have been reduced or eliminated in recent years on behalf of so-called core academic subjects—return to the classroom. At the Timilty Middle School in Boston, for instance, all students submit a project to the citywide science fair. At the Matthew J. Kuss School in Fall River, Massachusetts, according to the Boston Globe, “The once hit-or-miss drama program now regularly puts on major productions… . The troupe last fall staged a production of Macbeth, with the performers in professionally made costumes.”

Teachers gain a greater ability to work with diverse skill levels at the same time. Longer periods enable teachers to divide the class into groups, and to make room for individual and small-group tutoring—and more students stay more engaged, rather than drifting off into inattention and eventual disciplinary problems and failure. Students and adults get to interact more and develop stronger relationships — one of the crucial foundations of student achievement.

Schools restore academic subjects that had been scaled back or even dropped due to the emphasis on core instruction and high-stakes testing in reading, writing, and math. Students are able to study crucial academic subjects such as science, history, social studies, and foreign languages. Finally, teachers have time to work with each other in planning how they teach their students, time that almost never exists in the current school schedule. From Miami to Boston, Houston to Newport News, principals and teachers talked to us about the importance of teachers’ getting more (and more targeted) professional development — training to be more effective — as well as much more grade-level and subject-level planning time. These crucial new hours allow teachers to assess their students’ progress and their own techniques, and to zero in on kids who need extra help.

Making kids smarter

The real test of the new school day is that it’s already working, and in some cases working wonders, for hundreds of thousands of students in schools that have already adopted it:

  • In public charter schools
  • In elite private schools
  • In affluent suburbs where parents create a new day by purchasing after-school activities
  • In the thirty-nine-school School Improvement Zone in the poorest big city in the country — Miami
  • In Massachusetts, where the Expanded Learning Time Initiative is rapidly expanding

Still, even successful experiments only rarely sweep through the nation’s school districts on their own. We’ve written this book to give the new school schedule an additional boost.

English language learners

The new day make a big difference to some other groups of public school students, too. How about English language learners, kids who are learning English as a second (or third or fourth) language while they’re going to school? Raise your hand if you think these children (numbering in the millions nationally) would do better in school if they had more time to work with their teachers on their English language skills, and to practice English with their schoolmates. Keep your hand raised if you think that these children would be better off seeking homework help from their parents, many of whom are learning English themselves, and many of whom did not have advanced schooling in their home countries. Ah, you’re such a good class!

Many native-born Americans complain that too many of our newest immigrants don’t bother to learn English. Why then wouldn’t we as a society want their children to learn English as quickly as possible, something that will happen in an active, engaging school day far faster than passively in front of a television? Immigrant parents, not coincidentally, overwhelmingly prefer the new school day when given the chance, even though many of them work in just the kind of small businesses that can make good use of the extra labor of children in the family. We saw this among immigrant parents in Malden, Massachusetts, and we saw it in Miami Edison High School.

“We have another group,” said Principal Jean Teal, “that we call ‘new beginnings,’ who’ve had no formal schooling in their own country. They’ve never had instruction, fifteen- or sixteen-year-olds who’ve never gone to school, never had phonics, never held a pencil. They stay homogeneously in their own cohort; they travel together, and we start teaching them from kindergarten on up. A lot of our students are English language learners, because their primary language is Creole. [Miami Edison is in Little Haiti.] All together 240 of our 1150 students are taking English as a second language.”

Special needs children

Then there are the children with learning disabilities, children with ADHD, and the entire category of “special needs” children. The whole point of identifying children with difficulties in learning is to be able to give them additional instruction tailored to their individual needs or disabilities. Special needs education takes patience and, above all, time. Remember Dorcas Chavez’s autistic son Kenan in Boston, who rode a school bus more than an hour each way to his new day school? His mother was tremendously excited about his social and motor-skill progress in less than a year, and she has been able to move her hours to full time instead of staying part time to care for her son in the afternoons. Parents of special needs children worry all the more about what happens to their kids in unsupervised settings, and many make substantial financial sacrifices to be with them. Look at how this mother’s experience of the new school day played out: not only did her son get excited about school, he was making important social progress —and she was able to increase the family income. Who knows? Maybe, working full time, her job started providing health benefits.

“We have inclusion math class,” Mrs. Cohen of Jose de Diego Middle School in Miami’s Zone told us, “special ed and regular kids together, doing math together. Because of the Zone, we are doing many more inclusion classes, and it’s working better. Now we pair a special ed and math teacher. So kids do better. Special ed kids work better with other kids, sort of see them as role models and learn from them.”

Here’s another way to think about children and school. When school is a place of engagement, excitement, and felt success, children like it. When it’s a nonstop struggle, a site for frequent failure, a place where slower kids get ignored by teachers in a hurry or routinely teased by quicker classmates, school for them becomes a dreary, unpleasant, depressing slog, and can’t end too soon. When there’s not enough time for learning-disabled children to learn in the ways they can learn best, we’re giving them an alienating experience of school that actively discourages them from higher education — and works against vocational success in their future lives as well.

Our interview with Chris Gabrieli

Excerpts from Time to Learn: How a New School Schedule Is Making Smarter Kids, Happier Parents & Safer Neighborhoods, copyright 2008, Jossey-Bass (opens in a new window). This material is used by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Buy the book (opens in a new window)

Gabrieli, C, & Goldstein, W (2008). Time to Learn: How a New School Schedule Is Making Smarter Kids, Happier Parents & Safer Neighborhoods. Jossey-Bass.
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