How to end a dispiriting fight over learning time
Here in Washington, well-meaning advocates of after-school programs are fighting with well-meaning advocates of longer school days over a big pot of federal money. It distresses me, but does not surprise me, to discover that their arguments seem to have more to do with clout in Congress than the well-being of the schoolchildren they say they are trying to help.
I have a solution. But first, let's examine the dispute.
A couple of weeks ago, my blogger colleague Valerie Strauss embraced the after-school program side of the argument and ran a piece by Jodi Grant, executive editor of the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance. "Research doesn't support the notion that kids automatically learn more if they sit longer in a classroom each day," my colleague declared. "Quality after school programs that engage kids in learning in ways different from the regular classroom experience have been shown to work wonders."
They made a good case, almost. They didn't mention that the highest-performing charter school networks have data showing that longer school days can have very beneficial effects. Charter school organizations such as KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First and YES have rejected the idea of cooperating with separate after-school programs and instead pay their teachers more so that they will stay an extra two or three hours each day to deepen and broaden the coordinated lessons that will determine each child's academic success. They don't have to persuade the after-school people to cooperate. They do everything themselves, including after-school sports and cultural activities.
The two sides are fighting over $1.25 billion in federal funds that have until now been reserved for after-school programs. The Obama administration wants to allow school districts, if they choose, to use some of that money instead to make school days longer.
Each side refers to studies that make the other side look bad. The longer-school-day people cite an old Mathematica study that made after-school programs appear so ineffective that, when I wrote about it, after-school devotee Arnold Schwarzenegger (before his governorship) called me to complain. At first I thought somebody was playing a joke, but it was the Terminator, deeply annoyed.
The after-school people in turn offer a March 2010 study by Abt Associates prepared for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. It looked at 22 public schools providing an additional 300 hours a year under the Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time program. Abt found no statistically significant gains in test scores the first two years except in fifth-grade science.
The research, and my experiences, suggest that teaching skill does more to raise achievement than increased learning time. But the length of the school day and year seems to have some effect. We lag behind nations with higher achievement rates in instructional hours per year---just 799 for us compared to 861 for Finland, 1,079 for South Korea and 926 for Japan, according to school time expert Elena Silva of the Education Sector think tank.
Both sides in the debate have impressive statistics in their favor. A 2007 study involving University of California and University of Wisconsin scholars and funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation reported gains of 20 percentiles in math achievement for elementary school students "who regularly attended the high-quality afterschool programs." Those were 35 after-school programs the researchers picked as the best out of 200 possibilities.
On the longer-school-day side, we have programs such as KIPP, whose charter middle schools usually have nine-hour school days that last until 5 p.m., plus required three-week summer school and many Saturday sessions. A survey of KIPP students who completed the middle school program showed a 42 percentile gain in math and a 28 percentile gain in reading over four years.
Yet each side acts as if the other has nothing going for it. In her piece on the Answer Sheet, Grant said there is "little or no evidence to show that lengthening the school day alone has a significant impact on student achievement." In an e-mail to me, a leader on the longer-school-day side says, "there has been very little evidence that voluntary after-school programs can drive academic gains of any scale."
Really? Please notice that the favorable data each side emphasizes comes from after-school and longer school day programs of the best sort -- high-quality after-school programs and high-performing charter schools. Gains appear unimpressive or nonexistent when all schools providing longer school days or after-school programs are assessed.
Why don't the fine people leading these organizations look for a sensible way to divide up the $1.25 billion and make sure it is spent ONLY on programs that have the quality factors associated with achievement gains?
That will of course be dismissed as unworkable and discouraging to programs that need time to develop their staffs and procedures. The people asking for a 30-minute increase in the D.C. public school day, for instance, know that there is little evidence of achievement gains from such a small change in instructional time, but they don't have the funds for more and hope that, in time, that small step will lead to more increases.
Such wishful thinking has gotten many other school-fixing measures in trouble. It would be refreshing if both the after-school and longer-school-day people took seriously their own research and agreed to share the Obama administration's money. The rule would be it could only go to programs that had the skilled staff and sensible rules shown to have produced success.
Okay, I know -- that might be a first on Capitol Hill. But these school innovators are very smart and caring. Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the National Center on Time & Learning and a longer school day advocate, says he likes the idea. If anyone can make this happen, they can. They just have to use their time wisely.
| November 12, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: afterschool programs, each praises studies showing the best of their programs succeed, each trashes the other's research, longer school days, two sides in increased learning time debate fight over $1.25 billion in federal funds, why not agree to fund just those high quality programs?
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