In a review of more than a dozen studies, researcher Steve Nelson of the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory found that they “concur that increasing allocated time, in itself, has little influence on student achievement.” Nelson cites evidence that it would take disproportionately large increases in the amount of schooling to boost student achievement measurably.

A separate review of studies on an extended school year concludes that making better use of existing time is a more cost-effective way to improve achievement. The author, Quinn Rasberry, cites a lack of conclusive evidence supporting the extended year and even lists possible disadvantages, including higher dropout rates, less professional development time for staff and less time for students to learn outside of school.

Schools should focus first on improving the quality of instruction, then see if there’s a need for extra time.

The North Carolina Educational Policy Research Center surveyed 2,400 teachers, other school employees and members of the public on ways to improve the use of time in school. Recommendations include improving attendance, minimizing distractions, making sure students understand what’s expected of them, beginning class promptly and having well-prepared lessons. The study notes that these improvements require “neither expense nor special training, and [are] almost guaranteed to result in higher student achievement.”

One policy brief, written for the North Carolina State Board of Education, agrees that “the key to improving achievement is to increase actual learning time.” The authors make suggestions similar to the ones above, adding that teachers should devise strategies to increase students’ motivation and use teaching techniques appropriate to each student’s level of proficiency.

Curtis McKnight, a math professor at the University of Oklahoma, has studied student achievement around the world and says the problem with U.S. schools is not time constraints, but poor organization and lesson planning. “Quality time depends on strong central ideas and strategic planning, and the books and teacher preparation to support that,” he says. “It’s not that we can’t do it, it’s that we’re not doing it.”

Disadvantaged students in particular may benefit from added time in school, but only if it’s carefully spent.”When kids come from homes where education is not a priority, then the after-school program is good,” says Richard Rossmiller, an emeritus professor of education from the University of Wisconsin. “They will be safe, are given guidance, and there are qualified teachers and aides.” Ideally, though, kids should get more than that, he says. “How the instruction is delivered is often overlooked. Each teacher is different, and some are more adept at getting their message across than others. The most effective use of time and money if you are going to do [extended-time] is professional development for teachers.”

“Extending Learning Time for Disadvantaged Students,” one in a series of books published by the U.S. Department of Education to help educators navigate new Title I funding guidelines, lists some other factors for success: Clear links between the program and the regular school day; a well-defined organizational and management structure; parent and community involvement; program assessments that measure both academic and psychosocial skills; and diligence in seeking funding.

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