Skimping on academics

When 20 Texas schools tried to emulate the practices of effective charters, gains were small in math and nonexistent in reading, notes Dan Willingham.

District schools couldn’t afford to lengthen the school day or provide tutoring in all grades and subjects, he writes. “It may be that researchers saw puny effects because they had to skimp on the most important factor: sustained engagement with challenging academic content.”

Longer day or more time for teachers?

A low-performing K-8 school extended the school day by 85 minutes, but found students and teachers were exhausted — and test scores went down. Now the New Haven school provides more time for teacher collaboration in a normal 6 1/2-hour day, writes Melissa Bailey on the Hechinger Report. Scores are rising.

Brennan-Rogers School serves three public housing projects. Once Brennan had been a “community school” that stayed open nights and weekends for basketball tournaments and neighborhood events, writes Bailey.

By the 2009-10 academic year, that effort was long gone. Test scores were low. Student behavior was out of control. Principal Karen Lott was brought in to turn around the school.

Brennan-Rogers students began to attend school from 8:20 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. four days a week, with an early dismissal on Wednesdays. Much of the extra time went to enrichment activities like gardening and other student clubs and assemblies with student performances. Brennan-Rogers added 45 minutes a day for teacher collaboration while students were sent to art and gym. The school extended academic periods every day but Wednesday, when kids left between 1:00 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. while teachers stayed for training. The effort was funded by a federal grant to overhaul failing schools, which required them to expand learning time.

Parents received no advance notice of the longer schedule. Students thought they were being punished.

After a year, Lott proposed returning to the normal school day with extra time for teacher collaboration.

For the past three years, teachers have met for an hour each morning without kids. Some days, they work with colleagues teaching the same grade to plan field trips or interdisciplinary projects on topics like slavery. Other days, they learn how to use iPads and Apple TVs. Teachers also comb through student data, help each other plan lessons and analyze how those lessons went.

. . . Though the day is shorter, instruction is more efficient, said sixth-grade teacher Tavares Bussey. “The kids are getting more out of it.”

In September, Brennan-Rogers plans to add 15 minutes a day for students, but the time won’t be used for academics, writes Bailey. “Instead, there will be a 30-minute morning meeting for kids to work on communication skills and conflict resolution.”

Extend the school day, but do it right

Extend the school day to make time for academics and foreign languages, sports, music, drama, debate and other enriching activities, writes Sehba Ali, chief academic officer for KIPP’s Bay Area schools, in Newsweek.

I met the dynamic Ali when she was recruiting students for KIPP Heartwood Academy, a public charter school in San Jose that ranks in the top 10 percent of California schools, despite its low-income, minority enrollment. KIPP’s school day typically goes from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., along with a mandatory three-week summer-school program, Ali notes.

But a long school day that’s all math and reading will burn out students, Ali warns. Teacher burn-out also is a risk.

At KIPP, we build in time during the day for teachers to meet with colleagues in the same grade or subject, enabling them to share lesson plans and coordinate instruction. This not only saves time for teachers but also helps ensure that expectations for both behavior and academics are consistent in every classroom. My school’s teacher-retention rate isn’t perfect, but while recent studies show that more than half of educators leave in the first five years, we keep 82 percent annually.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have called for a longer school day and year. Hundreds of schools are changing their schedules to provide more learning time for students. But I think Ali is right: More time for the same, old teaching is more likely to exhaust than enlighten. And it’s important to design school schedules that work for teachers who aren’t hyperactive 23-year-olds with no personal lives.

An extra 90 minutes of online ed

Fifteen Chicago elementary schools will add 90 minutes of online reading and math instruction to the school day, reports the Chicago Tribune. Non-teachers — probably after-school activities staff — will supervise, saving money and avoiding the teachers’ union contract, which limits the length of the school day.

Federal stimulus money is expected to cover much of the cost.

. . .  the new initiative is the product of a separate online pilot program the district launched last year, which provided online math courses to certain elementary school students. In those schools, students were encouraged — but not required — to attend extended school hours. District officials say math scores increased dramatically as a result of the online classes.

At Rocketship charter schools in San Jose, which primarily serve low-income Hispanic students, elementary students spend about 25 percent of the school day working on computers in Learning Lab.

Learning Lab does not require certified teachers and allows Rocketship to reduce staffing by five teachers and five classrooms per school, saving $500,000 per year.

Test scores are very high for Rocketship Mateo Sheedy and the newer school, Rocketship Si Se Puede.