The District of Columbia Public Schools released their test results for the 2012-2013 school year last week to great fanfare, and not without reason. The students achieved their greatest leap in achievement in recent history. They showed the highest growth in proficiency since 2008 in reading and since 2009 in math. Yes, those proficiency levels are still below 50 percent (47.4 percent for reading and 49.5 percent for math), but they are a huge improvement from 2007, when those percentages hovered around 30 percent.
Washington D.C. is something of a petri dish for the nation's education policy. Its schools have all the urban problems of a bifurcated poor and rich population, a long history of neglect, and almost half of the students in charter schools. It's also the place where former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee put down her first controversial school reform stamp. Regardless of what you think of Rhee, the progress of D.C. public school students over the last five years can be traced back to the alarm bells she set off.
There are a lot of reasons for the success of the last school year, but one of them caught my eye. As an experiment, Washington D.C. extended the school day in eight of its most problematic schools. In just one year, seven of them showed improvements in both math and reading, and four of them showed double-digit jumps. What's more, the acceleration was twice that of the non-extended day schools. DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson says she wants to expand the extended day program for this coming school year with two big "ifs": 1) If she can find the funding. 2) If she can negotiate a satisfactory deal with the teacher's union.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a big fan of extending time in school. He pushed for it when he headed up the Chicago Public Schools and included it as one of the pluses for states applying for waivers under No Child Left Behind.
But extended schools hours can't just be done willy nilly. As Education Sector analyst Elena Silva noted in a report last year, the best outcomes of extended learning time come from schools that increase the time that a student is "on task"—i.e., actively engaged. That requires lesson planning, up-to-date technology, and dependable funding. It should come as no surprise, then, that DCPS is being careful in pushing an extended day program too quickly, lest it come apart at the seams.
What are the benefits of extended learning? How is it most effective? How many hours of "on task" learning is needed for students who are behind the curve? Is the number different for kids who are at grade level or above? What do teachers need to support extended learning time? What about school districts? Can teachers unions abide by extended learning programs? What are the alternatives?