This was 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.

By Jodi Grant

Two new studies are flashing warning signs about the move to extend the school day.  The Department of Education has made extended learning time a centerpiece of its reform efforts. This could have been a breakthrough moment for our nation’s education system, encouraging community partnerships to expand learning in ways that help students succeed and bring new resources into our schools. As decades of research on afterschool and summer learning programs show, community partners and innovative teaching approaches can help engage and excite students in learning, boosting achievement.

But the extended day approach being implemented in many schools as a result of the department’s push to increase instructional time  falls short.  It largely ignores the deep body of research on what makes effective expanded learning.   Instead, too many schools are merely adding another hour or so of regular class time onto the school day.  Not surprisingly, two very recent studies suggest we might not accomplish much with this approach to improving schools. 

The first study is from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress. GAO surveyed states about their experience with implementation of the federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) program. Researchers found that 26 states said they didn’t think they would be able to sustain the program’s extended learning time reforms after their federal grants expired, because they were too expensive. Just 10 said they thought they could keep it going.

GAO also found that SIG schools are challenged by the planning required to implement increased learning time well.  SIG schools find it to be a complex and time consuming planning process and one that often is not embraced by stakeholders, including parents.  So it’s expensive, challenging and may not be sustainable.

A second report, this one from the nonprofit think tank Education Sector, finds that schools’ results from extending their day depend to a great degree on how they implement the extension. The key to success, the study finds, is taking the opportunity to look at how time is used overall, as part of comprehensive reform. In other words, simply extending the school day and offering more of the same can’t be relied upon to do the trick.

The need for significant planning, combined with the need to position increased learning time as part of comprehensive reform, calls into question the use of three- to five-year discretionary grant programs like SIG and 21st CCLC to implement a longer school day.   Fortunately, there are alternatives to increasing learning time for all students that are easier to implement, less costly and therefore more likely to be sustained – and they have shown strong results.

The Ed Sector report highlights several successful extended learning efforts that go beyond adding more time to the classroom, including The After-school Corporation (TASC) model in New York, Citizen Schools in Boston, and the Providence After School Alliance model in Rhode Island.  These models share a common foundation: strong afterschool programs, built around hands-on, experiential learning, and involving community partners. The approach builds on the regular school day, but with learning methods that engage students in different ways.

Many afterschool, before school and summer programs that offer this kind of experiential learning are supported – or were supported in their critical early years – by funds from 21st Century Community Learning Centers, the chief federal funding stream for afterschool programs.  That funding stream is in grave jeopardy right now, with the Department of Education encouraging states to divert afterschool those funds to programs to extend the school day.

So it would be wise, at this juncture, to step back and think for a moment.  What’s made expanded learning so successful over the years?  What role have community partners played in supporting learning and helping sustain expanded learning?  As the reams of research show, afterschool and summer programs give kids a chance to learn differently:  to explore academic subjects in a more informal, hands on setting, to take on team and leadership roles, to learn from a variety of community experts on everything from video production to robotics.   Policymakers would do well to heed these lessons as they focus on improving the nation’s schools. It’s important to look before you leap when our children’s education, and their future, hangs in the balance.


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