A policy brief released last month concluded that contrary to popular perception, most U.S. public schools require at least as much or even more instructional time for students than countries touted for their high performance on international tests, including Finland, Japan and South Korea. There were a lot of caveats in the report but the thrust of the brief was that calls for a longer instructional day for children in the United States to match what students in other countries get may be misguided.

I wrote about the brief and a short time after that posted a piece that referred to that brief and addressed the importance of strong afterschool programs, written by Jodi Grant, executive director of the nonprofit Afterschool Alliance, a nonprofit organization that works to ensure that all children have access to affordable, quality afterschool programs. In that piece she wrote, “I’ve spent the past two years fighting efforts to divert federal support for already underfunded afterschool programs to instead provide a small number of failing schools with money to add an hour or two to their school day.”

That prompted a response from Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of the National Center on Time & Learning, which supports expanding the instructional day. Here is a piece by Davis speaking to the policy brief and Grant’s piece, followed by a response from Grant.

By Jennifer Davis

A recent research brief from the National School Boards Association, an analysis of the quantity of instructional time in various countries, concludes by noting that what really matters with instructional time is “how effectively that time is used.” At the National Center on Time & Learning (NCTL), we agree with that point, and also agree that providing “extra time is only useful if that time is used wisely.”

Communities are faced with this basic question every day: how can we optimize learning for all students?

In this context, Jodi Grant, executive director of The Afterschool Alliance, responded to the NSBA research brief by highlighting the importance of after-school programs that “have the ability and flexibility to be creative and provide individualized learning. A student might learn engineering principles by building a rollercoaster; pick up chemistry lessons by working in a forensic lab, or master fractions and decimals in a baseball game.”

Ms. Grant is right about the power of individualized learning, but she sets her sights too low. Activities like the ones she mentions have tremendous educational value, so why shouldn’t schools that are also serious about engaging students have the opportunity to offer them, too? As she correctly notes, middle- and upper-class parents pay for these activities and more during out-of-school time and low-income children should have access to them too.

And that is the crux of the issue: School leaders in disadvantaged communities have come to recognize that voluntary afterschool programs cannot penetrate deeply enough into their school population; have a particularly difficult time reaching the children at the school who tend to have the greatest need; and have significantly lower attendance than the regular school day.

Faced with those realities, these leaders have found that expanding learning time in school can mean providing new, engaging, and individualized learning experiences in a cost-effective manner – and delivering them to all students.

As we detail in our recent publication, Time Well Spent: Eight Powerful Practices of Successful, Expanded-Time Schools, having more time expands the range of what is possible within the school, but what makes these schools ultimately successful is that they seize these opportunities: They use time well.

At NCTL, we work to support schools as they create effective expanded-time models like the ones profiled in Time Well Spent and we are heartened to see the U.S. Department of Education offering states flexibility in the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program through its process of granting waivers to states from No Child Left Behind’s most onerous requirements.

Currently, states give grants to school districts or community groups to run afterschool or summer programs, usually in school buildings, but those programs must be held during times when school is not in session.

In states that apply for the new flexibility, schools would not be limited to applying for afterschool or summer programs. They could also apply to use the funding to help create high-quality expanded learning time schools. High-quality expanded-time schools offer a well-rounded education for all students including time for academics and enrichment -- often provided by community partners -- and for common planning and teacher collaboration to ensure that instructional time is used better.

Every child deserves an excellent education, including many enriching educational experiences. We cannot let the debate about which adults provide educational programming and where the funds come from hinder our ability to meet that mission. Fortunately, the 21st Century program is a competitive grant program – it should fund the best afterschool programs, the best summer programs, and the highest-quality expanded-time schools.


Here’s a response by Jodi Grant, executive director of the Afterschool Alliance , a nonprofit organization that works to ensure that all children have access to affordable, quality afterschool programs.

By Jodi Grant

An extraordinary number of people have been in touch after reading the piece I wrote in The Answer Sheet titled, Why strong afterschool matters.  Clearly the conversation about creating opportunities for community partners and caring adults to provide students with more hands-on learning opportunities has touched a nerve.  It’s great to have the education community, parents, business leaders and others so engaged. 

History has demonstrated very clearly that schools alone cannot shoulder the burden of preparing all our students to succeed.  That’s why afterschool programs are so important. They have a proven track record of leveraging the best of a community’s resources — colleges, museums, arts groups, volunteers, community- and faith-based organizations, sports leagues, health care providers, businesses and others — to offer students hands-on activities that complement, but do not replicate, the school day.   

While it benefits all students, the more flexible, informal afterschool space is particularly helpful to students who struggle in the classroom.  It is an environment free from high stakes testing, grading and much of the pressure associated with the school day, yet it offers proven academic benefits. 

But funding for afterschool programs is painfully scarce.  Just one federal funding stream, the 21st Century Community Learning Center initiative (21st CCLC), is dedicated to supporting programs run jointly by schools and community-based organizations to expand learning before school, after school and over the summer for our most disadvantaged students.

  Today, 21st CCLC funded programs serve more than 1 million children nationwide.  That’s not nearly enough.  Typical 21st CCLC grant competitions are fierce; on average, just 25 percent of applicants can be funded. That leaves more than 15 million children alone, unsupervised and often without opportunities to learn after the school day ends.  

Afterschool programs reverse that, pairing students with mentors, helping them explore their interests, and relieving parents of worries about what their children are doing after schools close until parents get home from work.  Quality afterschool programs are cost-effective, flexible and innovative. 

 Ironically, the federal policies being pursued by proponents of a longer school day do nothing to increase and instead threaten to reduce engaged learning opportunities for children.

For example, the waiver recently offered by the Education Department to states from No Child Left Behind’s onerous requirements b contains no language to promote or guarantee hands-on learning, individualized tutoring and mentoring, holistic approaches to teaching that incorporate youth development practices, or community partnerships. The waiver opens the door for cash-strapped school districts to use funds that now support afterschool and summer programs to merely add more time to the school day.  Congress is considering a number of proposals that would do the same.  

We all support innovation, but the jury is still out on the impact of adding time to the school day.  In Massachusetts, they began experimenting with a longer school day in 2006 – and the model is still without significant evidence to show that it works.  

If we agree that all students need more engaged learning opportunities, we need to invest more in 21st CCLC afterschool and summer programs — not less.  But that’s just the start.  We should bring every available tool to bear as we re-imagine how, when and where students learn.  We should scale up effective programs and partnerships, and apply what we learn as we test an extended school day. 

But let’s acknowledge that it’s a test of an unproven strategy that may or may not work, and could have some harmful unintended consequences. There are already multiple federal funding streams, including School Improvement Grants, Race to the Top funds, innovation funds and Title I that are providing access to hundreds of millions of dollars to experiment with a longer school day.   Yet, proponents of a longer school day want to dig even deeper into the federal budget, plundering 21st CCLCs, and endangering the afterschool and summer programs that are a lifeline for so many children and their working families, to see if their idea will work. 

America’s children have a lot to lose if they succeed.


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