Expanded Learning Time at a Tipping Point

Eric Schwarz is the Co-Founder and CEO of Citizen Schools

“If we are truly going to change our educational system, we can no longer approach reform one school at a time. We need to tackle reform more systemically. It is time for the exception to be the rule.” Regis Shields, Education Resource Strategies: 1,000 Schools vs 1,000 School Districts

Regis Shields is right: Expanded Learning Time for the moment is a school-based reform. The bright spots that The National Center for Time & Learning celebrates indeed appear to be exceptional cases, found only in unique circumstances like turnarounds, district-selected innovation schools or charter schools, free from district constraints.

The Edwards, Orchard Gardens, and other schools where Citizen Schools is providing a core of the expanded learning day enjoy levels of additional funding and autonomy not accorded to most low-performing schools across the country. Even the leaders of districts like Boston, Chicago and Newark, who have declared that ELT is a critical lever for reform of their lowest performing schools—and proven that to be true with real results—have not yet institutionalized the flexibilities their proof points enjoy.

She is also right that the clear path to district-wide adoption of ELT is blocked by the boulder of the status quo: how districts allocate resources, the level of autonomy schools have to shape compensation for their teaching force, and the value districts place on "non-traditional educators."

But there are three reasons why we as a nation will overcome these barriers and provide an expanded learning day for all kids who need it—and sooner than you may think.

1. ELT is close to reaching critical mass, in a critical mass of districts.

No thoughtful reform should sweep the country overnight. Charters didn’t. Given all the structural impediments, districts have chosen to test ELT in a small number of schools—and then use any successes as leverage to make systemic change. In Boston, for example, Citizen Schools' ELT partner schools now serve 21% of incoming middle school students this Fall, offering all of them a 40% longer day. Charters, meanwhile, are serving about 11% of public school students. With ELT programs not involving Citizen Schools factored in, 3 times more Boston middle schoolers benefit from in ELT than charters. And the district is paying for this today. Once ELT is serving at least 50% of the student population, a district will have tremendous leverage to drive reforms beyond what would have been possible a few years earlier. 2. ELT at scale is increasingly a high-yield, affordable investment. Even in these tight fiscal times, many communities and states may see a dramatically better and longer learning day as a great investment for parents and students. ELT delivers an appealing return on investment for districts: on average 40% more quality learning time for 10% of current per-pupil spending. And inspired by charter schools’ success in transitioning from a six- to a nine-hour learning day without significantly increasing their core budget, districts are using strategies like block scheduling, strategic staff deployment and increased class sizes to fund a longer learning day.

At the national level, ELT is no pipe dream if we focus on where the need and opportunity for payoff is greatest: high-poverty schools, in the middle school years—the funding exists today. The nation has only several million middle school age students attending schools that are majority low-income students. Enrolling 100% of these students in ELT programs, even at the upper end of per-pupil cost estimates ($2,000), would cost about $5 billion dollars. Federal funding streams exist that are meant to extend learning: SES, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, School Improvement Grants, and school-age child care grants. If even just half of these were directed to high-quality ELT, that would amount to $3 to $4 billion dollars.

3. Flexibility is closer than ever.

Districts may have a golden opportunity right now to sail with the winds of federal policy at their back.  The DOE’s initiatives, including Race To The Top, I3, ESEA waivers and reauthorization, all support ELT as a core lever for reform. As high performing charters are proving that high-need students can catch up to and surpass suburban peers through a longer school day, families demand an equally excellent educational experience at their district’s schools. A rigorous, relevant and engaging learning day should become a promise districts are expected to keep for their communities—with no excuses.

A tipping point is at hand. If you are convinced that a longer learning day can benefit kids at greater scale, it's time to join Citizen Schools, the National Center for Time & Learning, The After-School Corporation (TASC) and leading foundations like Wallace and Ford, in seizing this moment.