Mass. Expanded Learning Time Initiative improves access to enrichment activities

iStock_000016837201_ExtraSmallIt’s too soon to tell if a longer school day will close the achievement gap in schools participating in Massachusetts’ Expanded Learning Time (ELT) Initiative, but enrichment activities offered in those schools are helping to close the “access gap” for disadvantaged students, says an evaluation of the initiative for The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education by Abt Associates.

“Some see in-school enrichment opportunities as opening the children’s worlds and allowing them to ‘gain cultural capital,'” says the report on the Expanded Learning Time Initiative.

“ELT not only helps to ‘close the achievement gap for disadvantaged students,’ but it also narrows the ‘access gap,’ said one principal who praised ELT for helping to increase student exposure to cultural experiences like museums and the symphony. In addition, some spoke of the evolving relationships between teachers and students that enrichment often facilitated.”

Currently, 26 schools participate in the initiative, which the state says is the first-ever initiative in the nation to expand learning time. The Abt report evaluates 18 schools: 9 that began offering an expanded schedule in the 2006-2007 school year and 9 more that began offering it in the 2007-2008 school year.

Teachers get 18% salary increase

To participate in the ELT and receive $1,300 per pupil for the expanded schedule, schools had to agree to increase time in school by 25-30%, which is about 300 hours per year or about 100 more minutes per day. Teachers receive an 18% increase in salary for the expanded school day.

While it’s still an unknown what impact ELT will have on academic outcomes, principals in ELT schools say the initiative has made it possible to increase instructional time for science and social studies as well as for math and language arts and to slightly increase common planning time for teachers.

“Across schools, most teachers appreciated having more time for academics and reported feeling less rushed and more relaxed; many teachers commented that the pace of the day had improved,” the report says.

Among the issues to watch closely in the future, the report indicates, are teacher turnover in ELT schools. While teachers express satisfaction with many of the changes brought by ELT, in surveys, more teachers in ELT schools than in matched comparison schools indicated they were considering transferring to a different school (34% vs. 24%). Teachers also reported more staff and student fatigue as a result of ELT.

3 major goals of initiative

The report is based on focus groups and interviews with parents, principals, teachers and surveys of teachers in both ELT schools and comparison schools. Almost 500 teachers from ELT schools and almost 400 teachers from comparison schools completed the surveys.

The 3 major goals of the initiative were to:

  • provide more instructional opportunities in math, literacy, science, and other core subjects to support student achievement
  • integrate enrichment opportunities into student learning
  • provide educators with increased opportunities to plan and to participate in professional development.

It took some experimentation for schools to decide how best to expand the school day, the authors of the report say. At first, schools tried 3 different approaches:

  • lengthening academic blocks throughout the traditional school day
  • adding a distinct expanded day program at the end of the traditional school day
  • a mixed schedule that included both the integrated and distinct schedules.

ELT schools soon got away from the “divided” schedule because it was too much like a “mandatory after-school program.” But when enrichment courses were integrated during the school day, some teachers felt it interrupted the flow of their academic lessons.

Enrichment courses in ELT schools typically last between 6 and 10 weeks and are led by teachers or outside partners, the report says. Some teachers and principals say that allowing students to choose enrichment courses helps to keep them invested. Many schools began to require the presence of a teacher during the enrichment courses because of partners’ lack of classroom management skills and an increase in behavior problems in the classroom. Some principals mentioned the need to help partners with more training or acclimatization to the school environment.

Of the 18 ELT schools, 10 had designated ELT coordinators or managers and one of their primary responsibilities was to form and manage community partnerships. Roughly half of the community partners interviewed said they provided their services to the schools at no cost. (These organizations seek private funding, fundraising or pursue other grant opportunities.)

“When district administrators were asked about the challenges of ELT as a whole, administrators often mentioned it had been a challenge to find high-quality partners, develop relationships, and solve scheduling issues,” the report says.

Academic learning time

How schools chose to use the extra academic learning time varied, but in general, ELT schools focused primarily on improving language arts and math performance. Many school schedules included 90 to 180 minutes per day of language arts and 60 to 120 minutes per day of math instruction. Elementary schools increased time for language arts instruction more than middle schools. Some schools added a “drop everything and read” program or independent reading time each day for 20 to 30 minutes. Many schools created longer writing periods or separated writing from the rest of language arts for the first time. At one school, an entire 60-minute block each day was devoted to writing.

“Teachers at one school felt that there was too much ELA in the new schedule, stating that they had their ‘regular program’ plus ‘ELT English,'” the report says.

One school increased its focus on math by creating a number of single-gender math classes and instituting “Math Fridays,” when teachers teamed up to teach both the language around math (including word problems) and specific math skills. Schools added “math center” and “math games,” more time for discussion and in-class practice.

Besides math and language arts, schools used academic time to offer more science and social studies. One school reported students had an additional 2 hours per week of science and 2 additional hours for social studies. They also offered more academic support programs including home support programs, academic leagues, test-taking skills courses and advisory groups. Teachers commented that the extra time allowed for more differentiated instruction based on learning styles and more “on the spot” informal assessments.

Parent perceptions

Abt Associates conducted 21 focus groups with a total of 138 parents at 18 schools. Separate groups were conducted in English and Spanish when appropriate. Parents said they felt mixed emotions about ELT at first. While they were often excited about the enrichment courses and time to focus on other subjects besides language arts and math, they also were worried that the day would be too long, especially for the youngest students.

“In half of the focus groups, most or all parents felt their children’s education had improved due to ELT,” the report says.

Working parents acknowledged that the new schedule was easier to coordinate with their work schedules and appreciated that the extended day kept their children off the streets and away from television.

Some parents benefited from no longer needing to pay for child care after school. Some parents were upset that the new schedule interfered with previous after-school activities and with family time.

Homework was an important issue for parents and there were conflicting opinions about whether their children had more or less homework with ELT. Parents were annoyed if their children had significant homework after such a long school day.

“Year Two Report: 2007-2008, Evaluation of the Expanded Learning Time Initiative,” prepared for The Massachusetts Department of elementary and Secondary Education by Abt Associates, Inc., March 26, 2009.

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