We know, we know…American kids are falling behind each other and other nations because we’re stuck with an outdated “agrarian” school calendar. President Obama and Secretary Duncan have both made public statements about the need to modernize school schedules, and over the past several years states and districts have been steadily moving toward a new phase of school time experiments (the 1990s saw a similar spate of time reform after 1982’s A Nation at Risk called for extending school from the average 180 to 200 days and then the National Education Commission on Time and Learning put out recommendations in the early 90s for time reform). Year-round or “modified” calendars are now back in the news, and extended school days and years, including a wide range of alternative start and stop times, have been proposed and implemented by schools and districts around the country.
Massachusetts’ Expanded Learning Time initiative, established in 2005, has been the best signal that today’s time reform efforts might have some staying power. The state supported initiative has been growing annually, more than doubling school and district participation. Its creator, the nonprofit advocacy group Mass2020, just-released its 2010 progress report touting the ELT initiative’s successes. The ELT model, says the report, provides more academic instruction and more enrichment for students, more time for teachers to plan and collaborate, and stronger partnerships with community organizations, agencies and universities. As a result, the report claims that many of the schools are now in high-demand, having become “schools of choice” for parents.
But a new independent evaluation of the initiative’s outcomes (pdf), conducted by the Boston-based Abt Associates, presents a less convincing picture of the ELT initiative’s success (Abt Associates was hired in 2006 by the state department of education to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the ELT Initiative, which has included separate implementation and outcomes studies). The study, which matched ELT schools to non-ELT comparison schools with district and grade span, found higher science scores for 5th graders in the ELT schools but otherwise no statistically significant differences between the schools. The bottom line finding of this outcomes report is that ELT seems to have had no significant effect on a whole range of student outcomes, including student MCAS scores, attendance, participation in out-of-school activities, or students’ perceptions of their relationships with teachers or level of engagement in school. Similarly, there was no significant effect on teacher outcomes—overall, teachers in ELT and non-ELT schools feel about the same levels of satisfaction (mostly positive) with their salaries, jobs, and schools. Michael Jonas writing for Commonwealth magazine has more on the Abt study here.
So does this mean ELT doesn’t work? A few things to consider. First, the Abt study is a Year 3 study, which is of course better than a first- or second-year study but still is mostly a baseline in education reform. Second, qualitative findings from the Abt study suggest that the non-ELT schools had adopted some “ELT-like” strategies, including efforts to integrate enrichment into core academics, and adding time for math and reading instruction. This is important for two reasons. One, because it suggests a possible “district effect” that could explain why ELT schools showed positive effects on science and science only. If all schools in a district were increasing time on math and reading, schools with traditional schedules would arguably have to give up something in exchange, likely science. And two, because the move to “ELT-like” strategies could mean a culture shift, where education leaders are responding to the well-researched fact that achievement gaps will not close unless low-income children are afforded more high-quality learning opportunities.
Research on the need for expanded learning opportunities for low-income kids is incontrovertible—without extra learning achievement gaps are sure to persist. But the Abt study is a good reminder that the Massachusetts ELT model isn’t hitting it out of the park. And right now, as states and districts are grappling with shrinking budgets, and thusly considering cutting school hours and days (rather than staff), reformers would be wise to rethink whether the T in ELT is really the keystone of the reform. Mass2020 knows that ELT depends as much on people and partnerships as it does on extra time but still struggles to articulate how a school or district could or should govern multiple school-based and non school-based providers in a cost effective and sustainable way. The real challenge for ELT, in Massachusetts and nationally, is not to persuade anyone that our school calendar is outdated or that poor kids need more time. The challenge now is to figure out how to find, organize and maximize the resources—both inside and outside of schools—that are needed to make more time work.