Yesterday, a group of civic and political leaders including Education Secretary Duncan, Governor Malloy of Connecticut, and Governor Hickenlooper from Colorado came together to celebrate a new partnership between the National Center on Time and Learning and the Ford Foundation to “expand” the school day. The five states forming the TIME Collaborative — Connecticut, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee — have committed to providing at least 300 more hours of learning time in participating schools. Leaders hope this time will be filled with more academic instruction, high quality enrichment opportunities, and will provide a safe place during the most dangerous and uncertain hours of the day for students.
But as I sat there enjoying the pomp and circumstance of the rollout of a nationwide initiative, I thought, why is this so innovative? States, districts, and schools could be doing this anyway, even without a heavy dose of cash.
Doing so can include taking a look at the way teachers use time. Included in the initiative is a promise for participating schools to “dedicate ample time for teacher collaboration and professional development.” This can include giving teachers a chance to form and participate in professional learning communities and engage in data analysis, as well as spend time learning from their principals, instructional coaches, and most importantly, each other. Many schools in the collaborative are even planning to stagger the school day so that students have more time to learn, while teachers enjoy more flexible schedules.
Given that research has shown that teachers who collaborate during the day are likely to develop feelings of collective efficacy and social capital, as well as improve student achievement through peer-to-peer learning — this is certainly a good place to start. But doing so requires three key things:
Flexible union contracts: With collective bargaining battles between teacher unions and school districts dominating news headlines, it might come as a surprise that there are zero states that make the length of a school day a mandatory subject of bargaining. In fact, five states (Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, and Wisconsin) make it illegal to bargain over the school calendar. This means that local leaders are free to propose differentiated schedules for teachers and extend the day, without any legal ramifications.
Admittedly, this is harder than it sounds. Think back to September’s CTU strike, where teachers pushed back against Rahm Emanuel’s plan to extend the school day – one of the shortest in the country. A similar conflict ensued in Boston, where the Boston Teachers Union fought a successful campaign against Boston Public Schools superintendent Carol Johnson’s proposal to extend a similarly short school day. But while difficult, it’s not impossible, and a forward-thinking school district leader should be able to push a longer school day without having to perform legal jujitsu.
Strong leaders: Leadership is key to ensuring that teacher time is spent wisely and well. As AEI Scholar Rick Hess argues in his new book Cage-Busting Leadership, leaders can take advantage of time, tools, and talent to ensure that teachers and students are using time effectively, and not just remaining in the building for more hours doing the same things. Promising strategies include partnering with organizations like Citizen Schools to bring a second shift of educators from the community, or taking advantage of new technology so that teachers can spend more time planning, while students practice their skills online using programs like Rosetta Stone or DreamBox Learning.
Rigorous research: Regardless of how schools use extended days, teachers need to make sure that they are collecting data to determine which programs are effective. And this should go beyond measuring reading and math scores. As Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville said yesterday, schools need to collect data about other important outcomes such as student persistence, school safety, and teacher retention to document whether these practices are effective. Without rigorous research on the effectiveness of a longer day, funding streams are likely to dry up, and quickly.
The TIME collaborative has undoubtedly brought attention to a crucial issue — and students in participating schools will likely benefit from more time spent well. But not all states have huge swaths of cash from the Ford Foundation to devote to these projects. Schools can start by getting creative about how teachers use their time to plan, learn, and collaborate. And in doing so, school leaders may find they have much more freedom to do so than is widely believed.