On the Clock: Rethinking the Way Schools Use Time

Reports & Briefs | January 11, 2007
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As schools across the country struggle to meet the demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and their state accountability systems, educators are searching for ways to raise student achievement. Increasing numbers of school and district leaders are turning to one of the most fundamental features of the public education system: the amount of time students spend in school.

The addition and improvement of the use of time was at the top of the list of recommendations in a report, Getting Smarter, Becoming Fairer: A Progressive Education Agenda for a Stronger Nation, issued last year by a national task force on public education comprised of political, business and education leaders. States and school districts around the country are considering dozens of proposals for extending the school day and year ranging from lengthening the school day by several hours to extending the school year by days, weeks or months. Minnesota’s school superintendents last year proposed increasing the school year from 175 to 200 days. A business-led group in Delaware is proposing state funding for an additional 140 school hours a year as a part of its plan for improving the state’s education system.

Philadelphia schools chief executive Paul Vallas announced plans to extend the school year about a month to ten and a half months. Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley has called for year-round schools, while a group of Illinois legislators have proposed extending the school year throughout the state. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson recently proposed a longer school day and year for low-performing schools, while Washington, D.C. Superintendent Clifford Janey has proposed a longer school year for low-performing schools in the nation’s capital. And Massachusetts lawmakers included $6.5 million in the state budget to support a public–private partnership to expand learning time for 10 schools in five districts.

Also generating interest in extended time programs is the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act's requirement that states provide supplementary education services to low-income students in low-performing schools. These services, provided outside of the regular school day, are now part of a multitude of strategies to expand learning opportunities for students during after-school hours and other out-of-school time.

There is little wonder why reforms have focused on school time. Students spend two-thirds of their waking hours away from school, and along with money, time is perhaps the most readily measured and easily understood resource in schools.

The logic of time reform is simple: more time in school should result in more learning and better student performance. But this seemingly straightforward calculation is more complex than it appears. Research reveals a complicated relationship between time and learning and suggests that improving the quality of instructional time is at least as important as increasing the quantity of time in school. It also suggests that the addition of high-quality teaching time is of particular benefit to certain groups of students, such as low-income students and others who have little opportunity for learning outside of school.

What's more, the politics and cost of extending time make the reform a tough sell. Additional days and hours are expensive, and changing the school schedule affects not only students and teachers, but parents, employers and a wide range of industries that are dependent on the traditional school day and year. It is critical that policymakers understand the educational and political complexities of time reform before they attempt to extend the school year or take up other time-reform initiatives.

This report examines both the educational and political dimensions of time reform. It presents the findings of a wide range of research on time reform, discusses the impact of various time reforms on the life of schools and beyond, and makes recommendations for policymakers about how to best leverage time in and out of school to improve student achievement.

This research was made possible with a grant from The Broad Foundation. We thank the foundation for their support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented in this report are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the foundation.