Also called extended learning time, the term expanded learning time refers to any educational program or strategy intended to increase the amount of time students are learning, especially for the purposes of improving academic achievement and test scores, or reducing learning loss, learning gaps, and achievement gaps. For this reason, expanding learning time could be considered a de facto reform strategy, since expanding learning time is typically needed or proposed only when students are not performing or achieving at expected levels. (One exception would be optional learning-enrichment programs, which may increase the amount of time students are learning, but that may also viewed as elective or nonrequired opportunities for students to enhance or further their education.)
Extended (or expanded) school days and school weeks are also used as a strategy for increasing the amount of time students receive instruction; engage in learning opportunities in areas such as sports and arts; learn through non-traditional experiences such as apprenticeships or internships; or get academic support as part of their school days or years.
While expanded learning time may take a wide variety of forms from state to state or school to school, the following is a representative list of a few widely used strategies:
- Expanded school years add to the number of days students are required to attend school. While states generally determine a minimum number of required attendance days—and state legislatures or departments of education may pass legislation or create regulations that increase minimum school-attendance requirements—districts and schools may also independently elect to increase the number of days in their school year.
- Expanded school days and school weeks are also used as a strategy for increasing the amount of time students receive instruction from teachers and other educators; participate in learning activities in such as clubs, competitions, and performances; learn through nontraditional learning pathways, such as internships and apprenticeships; or receive or academic support from educators and specialists. Moving from half-day to full-day kindergarten is one example, but public schools may also add an hour or more onto the customary duration of a school day. In these cases, the increase may be long-term or short-term, and schools might be seeking to improve the overall academic performance of the student body, or the objective may be more specific—e.g., increasing instructional time and test preparation in advance of a high-stakes test.
- Increasing or supplementing instructional time during the regular school day is another common way that educators might expand learning time for students. For example, schools may eliminate study halls and replace them with academic courses, tutoring sessions, or other forms of academic support, such as learning labs, in which students are engaged in purposeful learning activities intended to help them meet learning expectations in an academic course. States or schools may also increase course and credit requirements for graduation (often in a particular subject area, such as mathematics or science), which require students to take more courses in particular subject area, thereby effectively requiring them to spend more time learning the subject. For example, some high schools require “five years” of math, which means that students are required to take and complete at least five year-long math courses (two courses would be completed during one year if they plan to graduate in four years).
- Summer school, winter sessions, school-break programs, and summer-bridge programs are other strategies that states, districts, or schools can use to expand learning time for students. By requiring or offering additional learning opportunities during school breaks—usually the longer summer, fall, winter, and spring breaks—schools can support students who have fallen behind academically and accelerate their learning progress. In some cases, these school-break programs are required if students have either failed courses or failed to meet learning standards (as with many traditional summer-school sessions), but others are optional or encouraged for those students who educators believe would benefit from the opportunities.
- Before-school programs and after-school programs are school-run or school-affiliated learning opportunities that happen before or after regular school hours, usually for the purposes of supporting or supplementing student learning (although some programs, particularly those in the elementary schools, may resemble child-care programs more than strict academic programs). While they can take a wide variety of forms, before- and after-school programs are often used to provide academic support to students—i.e., teachers, tutors, mentors, and educational specialists develop programming to help students improve their learning, catch up with their peers, meet learning standards, or generally succeed in school. The programs may be operated by districts, schools, community organizations, or charitable initiatives, and they may be designed to supplement or enrich student learning, often in the form of co-curricular programing—i.e., educational activities that are connected, in some way, to what students are learning in school (musical and theatrical performances, math teams, mock trials, debate competitions, or robotics clubs, among many other possible activities, are examples of co-curricular programming). In some cases, students who are struggling academically or have specialized learning needs may be referred to a before- or after-school program or required to participate in one. (It should be noted that some advocates of expanded learning time would not consider the programs to be “expanded learning” unless they were mandatory.)
- Digital and online learning options can also be used to expand learning time. While students have long completed homework assignments or project outside of regular school hours, new learning technologies allow for instructional interactions that go well beyond reading and assignment completion. For example, students can watch videos and recorded lectures, communicate with teachers electronically, or use interactive programs that support students as they work through a problem, task, or assignment. For related discussions, see blended learning, asynchronous learning and synchronous learning.
Expanding learning time throughout a state system of public education, or even within an individual district or school, can have complicated and far-reaching implications, which can give rise to criticism and debate. For example, expanding learning time may require significant changes in school operations, scheduling, and transportation, which can increase associated costs—from bus fuel, heating, and lighting to staffing, compensation, and benefits—and have a significant effect on school budgets, particularly during times when funding is being cut. And since teaching contracts typically stipulate the number of hours teachers are required or allowed to teach each week, extending the length of school days and years will usually have implications for collective-bargaining negotiations and contractual agreements.
Another source of debate is whether expanding learning time in public schools actually leads to improvements in student learning and academic achievement. If the additional time is not meaningfully, purposefully, or effectively utilized, schools may increase costs, complicate operations, and upset teachers and unions without realizing the desired benefits in student learning. In addition, while research studies have provided evidence that expanding learning time can lead to improvements in student learning and academic achievement, some observers have pointed out that some of the world’s highest-performing educational systems, notably Finland’s, have shorter school days and years than public schools in the United States, which suggests, in the view of some critics, that improving student achievement is more about quality than quantity.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.