As Baltimore school board officials search for a new city schools CEO, they might do well to note the big gains in student achievement at schools in the District of Columbia where educators have made a longer school day part of the reform effort. It's worked well enough in Washington that Baltimore might well benefit from emulating that city's success.
More instructional time in the classroom appears to have helped D.C. children not only boost their performance on standardized tests but do so more rapidly than their peers at schools with traditional 7.5-hour schedules. Surely one of the things the school board should ask of prospective candidates to replace outgoing city schools CEO Andrés Alonso is how such extended school days might be implemented in Baltimore.
Test scores in Washington have increased nearly across the board since 2007, when the city began its school reform effort. But last year eight D.C. schools received a grant for an experimental program to extend the length of their instructional day by 90 minutes. The extra money allowed them to keep their doors open until 4:15 or 5 in the afternoon rather than cutting off instruction at 3:15 p.m.
The results at all but one of the schools were impressive: The gains in math averaged 10.6 percentage points, compared to the 3.3 point gain at schools with the traditional schedule. And in reading, the extended-day schools gained 7.2 percentage points — nearly twice the 3.7 point increase at their traditional counterparts.
Educators at the extended-day schools were quick to acknowledge that the longer day was only one factor in boosting student achievement levels. Simply spending more time in the classroom would not have produced such rapid gains if teachers and principals had not also come up with new strategies and interventions to motivate students and help them learn, they said. The key to success was not doing more of the same but using the extra time kids spent in class more effectively.
Extending the school day in order to allow educators more time to work with students is not a new idea. For many years, a longer school day has been integral to the instructional strategy of the Harlem Children's Zone in New York, a public charter school program serving low-income and minority students in one of the city's most depressed communities. Students at HCZ attend regular classes from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., then spend two more hours in an after-school program, where they receive academic tutoring and help with homework. At 4 p.m. they switch to an after-afterschool session geared to sports and recreational activities that runs until 6 p.m. Last year, 95 percent of HCZ's 12th-graders graduated from high school and received college acceptance notices.
In Baltimore, similar successes are already being achieved by some charter schools, such as KIPP Baltimore, which operates two high-performing public charter schools in the city, and the SEED (Schools for Educational Evolution and Development) academy in southwest Baltimore, a public charter whose educational offerings are comparable to those of a private boarding school. Both KIPP and SEED have had to contend with a city teacher contract that limits the workday to 7.5 hours, yet they've managed to overcome whatever difficulties that might have involved in order to maintain their extended day, and their success rate suggests the effort has been worth it.
At a time when the once-rapid gains registered by Baltimore City students on state standardized tests have slowed or stagnated, the city urgently needs to look at new ways to maintain the momentum for school reform. Whoever becomes the next city schools chief will have to figure out how to get the system moving again, and he or she could do worse than look at new ways to expand the instructional day at more city schools.