by Jennifer Davis, Special to CNN
Editor’s Note: Jennifer Davis is the co-founder and president of the National Center on Time & Learning, which is dedicated to expanding learning time to improve student achievement and enable a well-rounded education. For twenty years she has held federal, state and local positions aimed at improving educational opportunities for children, including serving as U.S. Department of Education Deputy Assistant Secretary . She can be followed on Twitter @expanding_time.
Common sense tells us that when it comes to learning, time matters. An individual simply cannot become more proficient in any given area without committing a certain amount of time to grasping new content, practicing and honing skills, and then applying such knowledge and skills to realizing specific outcomes. Think of the chess master who plays match after match to improve his game, or the scientist who toils long hours in her laboratory to unlock the mysteries of an intricate scientific puzzle. For them, becoming more adept in their chosen field depends on the time they invest to know and do more.
The great irony is that our nation’s public schools have, by their adherence to the conventional calendar created a century ago to meet the needs of farms and factories (180 six-and-a-half-hour days), essentially disregarded the powerful connection between time and learning. We know that many parents who are financially able invest in their children’s education beyond school hours—whether it be programming in the arts, music, ballet, or tutoring. Low-income parents (and increasingly middle-income families) often lack the financial resources to provide additional learning opportunities outside of school.
In this increasingly global economy, it is in our country’s best interest to give our children expanded opportunities for learning in order to prepare them for a complex future. Our students need time both to master the basics and to engage in subjects—from science to foreign languages to art and technology—that pique their interests and encourage a love for continuous learning. We need to teach our students what it means to be a leader, a collaborator, and presenter - all skills that are vital in the 21st century. Schools cannot develop these skills thoroughly in the time currently available. The traditional school calendar limits opportunities for the deep and broad learning students need to thrive.
Recent research shows that the quantity of instructional time is one of the most significant factors that accounts for variability in overall achievement levels (among schools). Likewise, it is no surprise that students in schools with more time regularly outperform their peers attending schools with traditional schedules. An expanded schedule raises achievement by giving students the opportunity to benefit from instruction tailored to meet their individual needs and to examine topics in greater depth. For example, the more than 100 schools located in 20 states that belong to the KIPP network of college preparatory charter schools typically operate with upwards of 1,700 annual instructional hours compared to the national average of 1,200. KIPP schools use their additional time to provide many more hours per year in academic classes and participate in a broad array of programming and community experiences that prepares students for college and a successful future. Independent evaluations have shown that KIPP students consistently and significantly outperform their peers.
Expanded school time also enriches education by enabling schools to offer a broad array of learning opportunities, including subjects that have been squeezed out of the curriculum in the No Child Left Behind era. During the past decade, the time dedicated to science in American elementary schools has significantly decreased, leaving little time for the deep inquiry and engagement that we know is needed to cultivate the next generation of scientists and engineers. The arts also have been cut, impacting schools’ ability to build creativity into student learning.
Finally, teachers realize that the resource of time opens up opportunities for them to meet regularly for structured collaboration. This regular collaboration then empowers them to strengthen instructional practices together.
Across the country, a growing number of schools are seeking to expand—or have already expanded— learning time, using it to re-imagine, innovate, and strengthen American education. Many are doing it through creative use of resources in tight budgetary times. These schools have prioritized more time and use technology, school partners, and federal and state resources in new ways to meet student needs. In the highest performing state in the nation,Massachusetts, for example, the Expanded Learning Time Initiative has supported numerous schools, serving thousands of students across several districts. Each of these schools has added at least 300 hours to the school year to provide more core academics, enrichment, and teacher collaboration and professional development opportunities.
Of course, time is only a resource, not a strategy. It matters a great deal what schools do with the time to improve teaching and learning. However, in my experience, unless schools are provided the resource of additional time, they will be unable to bring their students to the levels of proficiency they will need to meet the demands of the 21st century.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jennifer Davis.