Extended learning time is a good idea (op-ed by Kevin Fahey)

There are an awful lot of good ideas about improving schools being discussed in Salem these days. There is talk about school uniforms, new instructional programs, different grade configurations, more rigorous assessments, a new teacher evaluation instrument, and rethinking our efforts for special education and second language students. As a researcher who has had the opportunity to work in the Salem Public Schools, and broadly in Massachusetts and the nation, I can confidently state that there is merit in each and every one of these ideas.

The question facing the Salem Publics School is not, “Where do we find good ideas that will help our kids?” but rather, “How do we choose among all the good ideas that are being discussed?” To answer this question, researchers often talk about a statistical term: effect size. Put simply, “effect size” means how big a difference each good idea might make. In Salem, we want to find the ideas that have the biggest effect sizes because we want to find the ideas that will make the biggest difference for our kids.

Not surprisingly, one of the ideas with the biggest effect sizes is also the simplest. When a basketball player wants to improve her foul shooting she spends more time shooting free throws. When a musician needs to learn a difficult piece, she spends more time at the piano. The simple lesson from our own experience and research is that when you want to get better at something, whether it is reading, math, carpentry, music, poetry or sculpture, you must spend more time learning about and practicing it. In educational jargon this simple idea is called “extended learning time,” and it has the biggest effect size of all the good ideas we are talking about.

Extended learning can look very different. I recently finished two years of work in a large district in Virginia that has many year-round schools.  These are schools that hold eight-week academic sessions year-round, with one or two weeks of vacation in between each session. They do not have long summer breaks, resulting in approximately 20% more learning time than neighbor districts.  The advantage of this model is that kids never really stop learning. In the same way, a skilled musician never stops practicing, a great ballplayer is always honing her skills, and a compelling writer is continually journaling, taking notes, and working on his craft.

Extended learning also happens when schools maintain a September to June calendar but meet for an extra hour or so per day. Many of the Massachusetts Innovation, Pilot, and Charter Schools use this model. These schools understand that no matter how the time is structured, kids learn more when they have more time.

Extended learning time schools have the flexibility to invest time in the subjects and practices that keep students engaged.  These schools can invest time in interdisciplinary projects, student publications, science demonstrations, field trips, relationships with museums, portfolios, art collaborations, and musical performances. In short, they invest in all of the things that keep kids engaged in schools, that keep them interested, that make schools unforgettable places. Even though parents have concerns about standardized test scores, what they want most for their kids is a school that engages, cares for, and challenges their child ¾ a school that has a rich and complex intellectual environment that will sustain their child for the rest of their life.  Schools with extended learning time literally have the time to make this type of investment in every child.

In my first month as principal of the Saltonstall School, which is Salem’s extended day and year-round school, Scott Lehigh from The Boston Globe visited the school. It was July 29th, our last day of school. As a new principal, I have to admit that I was not completely comfortable with a columnist from The Globe visiting the school on the last day of a very long year. Scott interviewed parents and teachers who praised the school and talked about having the time to really dig into a subject, just as I had hoped.

However, my anxiety increased when Scott stopped into Diane Caruso’s 4/5 multiage class to talk to students.  Of course he asked the 24 students to vote. I held my breath.  “A request came for a show of hands on how many liked the longer year and how many weren’t so sure. The first count clocked in at 14 to 5 in support. But the class had 24 pupils; some precincts hadn’t voted. Demand rose for a recount, this time the vote was 19 to 5. Scientific? No. Still it seems fair to conclude that the year-round calendar isn’t anathema to students (The Boston Globe, August 1, 2001).”

So if we have to choose between all the good ideas that can help our schools, let’s pick the one with the biggest effect size, that helps kids learn at deeper levels and in more authentic ways, and lets schools and teachers invest time in building the caring and challenging environments that every one of us wants for every one of our children.