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Longer school day? How five states are trying to change education.

Five states are participating in a pilot project designed to recast and improve education in low-income communities by leveraging a longer school day or year in innovative ways.

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Some of the additional time may be more personalized academic time, but some will also be enrichment opportunities like music, art, robotics, or sports, adds Jeannie Oakes, director of educational opportunity and scholarship programs at the Ford Foundation.

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She and others also emphasize a safety component: for many students, the most dangerous hours of the day are between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., when kids are out of school, don’t have good programming, and parents are busy at work.

NCTL and the Ford Foundation are providing money and technical expertise to the districts, and both the federal and state governments are also providing funds. But those involved say they hope the plans can be cost-efficient, providing a model for how students in traditional public schools and from low-income neighborhoods can get access to the sort of enrichment opportunities that many middle-class and affluent students routinely get. 

“You can have an eight-hour student day that doesn’t mean you need an eight-hour teacher day,” says Davis. “We know it can be done very cost-effectively, but you have to be creative.” 

Even some advocates have concerns, though. 

“This initiative is about scaling [these ideas] – starting small but going big pretty quickly,” says Elena Silva, a senior associate at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “We have a secretary of education who’s committed to this and to doing it quickly…. But in an effort to do things quickly and scale things quickly, we can oftentimes lose big opportunities to learn and do it right.” 

Moreover, says Ms. Silva, she’s concerned that all the packaging and PR around the initiative is just focusing on the increased time aspect of it. 

“This is about redesigning and rethinking the way we educate kids,” says Silva. “So time has to be a part of that, but it’s an issue that has a lot of different factors…. I get that we need a hook, and we found one, it’s time. But my biggest concern is that ‘time’ is the hook, and ‘time’ is the lead. Is it also the way we measure success?” 

That’s not the intention, says Ms. Oakes of the Ford Foundation. 

At its heart, this initiative is about helping states to make fundamental changes that they might be hesitant to make on their own – and seeing how programs that have been successful in charter and alternative schools might be brought into regular public schools, says Oakes. 

To evaluate the program’s success, Oakes says, “we’ll have to think beyond measures of standardized test scores.” 

Right now, she says, Ford and NCTL are working to develop indicators.

“We’re really hoping that this will help people see that yes, you really can do this,” Oakes says.

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