Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Interview with Jennifer Davis Part 1: Expanded Learning Time

By Sam Piha

It is important that afterschool professionals understand and participate in the discussions surrounding recent ideas and concepts in improving young people’s learning. Below we offer a two-part interview with Jennifer Davis, President and CEO of the National Center on Time & Learning, on Expanded Learning Time.

Q: We have been tracking the growing interest in Expanded Learning Time through a longer school day. To begin, can you briefly describe the National Center on Time & Learning? What do you mean by this term, Expanded Learning Time?

A: The National Center on Time & Learning was founded in October 2007, and grew out of our work in Massachusetts-- in partnership with state leaders --to develop a statewide competitive grant program called the Expanded Learning Time (ELT) initiative. ELT allots grants to districts with schools that add at least 300 annual hours to their schedules for all students to stimulate a whole-school redesign of the educational program that will include (a) more time for academics, (b) more time for enrichment (often provided by community partners) and (c) more time for teacher collaboration and professional development.

This is what we mean by Expanded Learning Time. We seek more time for schools not just so they can provide more academic support – though this is essential – but really to afford schools the opportunity to re-think and re-configure how they use time throughout the day and year. More time can open up schools’ capacity to better address the learning needs of every student and to engage students in a wide array of enriching activities. NCTL is committed to spreading this vision of ELT to schools and districts across the country.

Q: It appears that the notion of Expanded Learning Time has taken hold around the country and captured the interest of federal policymakers who are interested in improving academic outcomes. Can you say why you think this idea is growing in popularity?

A: There are four basic reasons why expanded time has become so appealing. First, if you look at the high-performing schools serving high poverty students in this country, expanded time – that is, substantially more than the American norm of 180 six-and-a-half hour days – is one of the key design elements. These educators know that the conventional calendar is simply insufficient to educate today’s children, especially children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. More time used well can close the persistent academic achievement gap for individual students.

Second, almost all high-performing nations across the globe have more time standard in their school calendars. As America struggles to close achievement gaps and to remain economically competitive with other countries, like mainland China, Korea, Japan and Germany, a longer day and year will help us to better educate our young citizens and prepare them for economic success.

In the era of high standards and, especially the high-stakes accountability ushered in by No Child Left Behind, schools have become focused primarily on enabling children to achieve proficiency in the tested subjects, namely math and reading. In response, time use has shifted to accommodate this focus. One study showed that elementary schools spend more time now in math and reading classes, at the expense of science, social studies, art and physical education.

Having more time in the school day, however, will enable schools to maintain enrichment and non-core subject classes, and provide more time to the subjects where students must demonstrate proficiency. In many expanded-time schools deep partnerships have been developed to broaden opportunities for students to engage in activities like music, arts, apprenticeships and more. 

Pressure to achieve proficiency will only grow over the coming years, as states move to implement the college- and career-ready standards known as the Common Core and as more states implement requirements around science education in addition to English and math.

Finally, teachers need more time to meet with grade level and subject specific colleagues, plan, review data and participate in professional development. We know from surveys of teachers that many do not feel as though they have time to meet the needs of individual students or to collaborate with colleagues.

These four compelling reasons have, together, led to significant momentum across the U.S. to modernize the American school schedule.

Q: There are a number of afterschool leaders that are concerned that Expanded Learning Time and the longer school day will lead to the takeover of afterschool by school leaders who’re pressured to offer more remediation leading to “more school after school.” What would you say to those who hold these concerns? Are there any guiding principles that ensure that these fears will not be realized? 

A: Because our vision of ELT includes more time for enrichment programming, we not only believe there are opportunities for expanded collaboration between schools and afterschool providers, we have seen such collaboration thrive. Two schools in Massachusetts that have been most successful in implementing expanded time have depended on partnerships to bring their vision of a well-rounded education to life. (See the case study on the Kuss Middle School here and Edwards Middle School here.)

In fact, the Massachusetts grant program specifically give a preference to applicants who have partnered with afterschool providers and other community-based organizations to provide robust enrichment programming. Likewise, the centerpiece legislation promoting expanded time at the federal level – called the Time for Innovation Matters in Education (TIME) Act – includes a provision giving priority to schools that partner with community organizations.

We know of too many schools that when they have the option to add just one hour do focus just on remediation. This is why our policy proposals call for at least 300 additional hours to the school calendar which usually adds up to about 90 minutes a day—giving time for a broad array of enrichment and youth development options (e.g. arts, music, videoing, robotics, apprenticeships, etc.) as well as academic support.

Jennifer Davis is the President and CEO of the National Center on Time & Learning, an organization created in 2007 to advance the issue of time and learning nationally. For the past 20 years, she has held numerous positions at the federal, state and local levels that are focused on improving educational opportunities for children across the U.S.

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