Extending the School Day? Is it Due to Ineffectiveness, Disengagement, or Enrichment?

Are Schools Extending the School Day (and Year) to Compensate for Ineffective Teaching and Student Disengagement, or to Enhance Elective, Enrichment, or Extracurricular Opportunities?

Dear Colleague,

As I worked last week outside of Boston, then in Salinas (CA), and now as I am thinking about my trip tomorrow to Kentucky. . . it just seems that:

There is Never Enough Time

Indeed, it is already late April. . . and May is just (THIS week) around the corner. In some ways, it seems like the school year just began, and yet, it’s almost over. And in between the rush from the beginning to the end, there is never enough time for all of us- - personally or professionally- - to do what we need to get done.

There are literally millions of quotes about time. Two of my favorites are:

“Time is what we want most, but. . . what we use worst.” William Penn

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” Mother Teresa

And so, let us begin.

Last week, the National Center on Time & Learning (NCTL) and the Education Commission of the States (ECS) jointly published an update of their 2013 report now titled, Learning Time in America: Trends to Reform the American School Calendar (CLICK HERE for Report).

Reviewing the growing movement to add time to the school day, and days to the school year, the Report looked at current federal, state, and local trends. Some of the Report’s most important trends included the following:

  • In states across the country, hundreds of bills to expand school time have been filed, and over 40 have become law in just the last two legislative sessions alone. In total, 44 states and the District of Columbia have added at least 30 minutes to their school days or 10 days to their school years.
  • Last year, 2,009 schools expanded their learning time (61% in public and 39% in charter schools), and two years ago, 1,079 schools increased their time (44% in public and 56% in charter schools).
  • Most expanded-time schools serve low-income and minority students. On average, 77% of the students enrolled in these schools qualify for free and reduced lunches, and 86% enroll students of color.
  • Some schools are expanding their learning time to increase their success and innovation, while others are required to expand their time to address their need for improvement and remediation.
  • Some schools are using their “new-found” time directly with their students, while others are investing their time on planning, professional development, and to enhance their performance.

When the School Day is Extended to Compensate for Ineffective Teaching and Student Disengagement

At face value, I have no problems with extending the school day. . . in fact, I am in favor of year-round school calendars, and for ensuring that the school day does not begin so early that students are nodding off during morning (or afternoon) class discussions.

This issue for me is why the school day (or school year) is being extended.

I am not in favor of extending the school day (or year) when students need the extra time to learn things they should have learned earlier in the day. . . for example, when students did not learn because of:

  • Disruptive or inefficient school schedules (including excessive numbers of transitions, and the constant flow of different groups of students in and out of the classroom during the day);
  • Ineffective (initial) instruction (including when teachers are poorly trained, inexperienced, unprepared, or have too many different student skill levels to teach at the same time);
  • Poorly designed curricula (including curricula that are not developmentally well-matched to the students, or when teachers are teaching students who do not have the prerequisite skills to succeed in the core curriculum); and/or because
  • The students are unmotivated or disengaged (including when engaged students are in classrooms with disengaged students who disrupt instruction or create a negative learning environment).

When these situations are present and the school day is extended to give students more hours of instruction, the additional time is basically compensating for gaps, weaknesses, or ineffective practices. This is inexcusable and should never occur as (a) it tacitly condones these debilitating conditions; and (b) will be unproductive if the same conditions persist during the extended hours.

[Parenthetically, why would we think that the teachers are more effective or the students more engaged when we start the school day earlier or keep everyone later?]

Once again, I am not saying that the school day shouldn’t be extended under the circumstances above. Instead, I am asking:

“Why would you not use the extended school hours to solve the problems above?”

That is, wouldn’t it be better to use the extended hours for administrators and staff to analyze, develop, and implement specific strategies to compensate for an inefficient schedule, to provide ineffective teachers needed professional development and supervision, to create better curricular units, to design and validate instructional or behavioral interventions for struggling or challenging students, to develop motivational and engaging learning opportunities for students?

And then, wouldn’t it be better to use the extended hours for students for elective, enrichment, and extracurricular activities (see below)?

A “Sidebar” on “Academic Engagement”

Related to the discussion above is the issue of academic engagement. While a broad and substantial area, I at least want to define “academic engagement” and relate it to the need for an extended school day or year.

Academic Engagement is defined as:

  • The percentage of students who are actively engaged in the academic task currently occurring in the classroom (e.g., listening to a lecture or another student, working independently, positively participating in a project-based group) over a sustained period of time.

In an effective classroom, a minimum of 93% of the students should be actively engaged a minimum of 93% of the time.

However, according to past research in cross-sections of American classrooms, students are engaged only 28 minutes out of every 60-minute teaching hour.

Thus- - as already discussed above, the answer here is not to extend the school day or school year. By extending the school day here, you would probably end up extending the underlying problems that have already produced a “2½ hour gap” (32 minutes lost per hour X 5 school day hours). By extending the school year here (let’s say by two weeks), the academic disengagement or disruption would result in a lost of 2½ days for the 10 extra days funded.

Clearly, this is not a good ROI- - Return on Investment.

The Question, then, is: “Would you need the extra time or days if the students were academically engaged 93% of the time?”

The Answer, then, is to (a) functionally assess WHY the current 32-minute academic engagement exists, (b) implement the instructional and/or behavioral interventions to close the time gap, and (c) see if the academic and behavioral outcomes that result preclude the need to extend the school day/year- - from a compensatory perspective.

When the School Day is Extended to Enhance Student, Staff, and School Successes

In contrast to extending the school day or year to compensate for classroom or school inefficiencies, there is merit to considering extensions that enhance the services, supports, strategies, and strengths of the school.

For example, additional school hours/days could provide more time for:

  • Districts to allow schools or staff to strategically plan, coordinate, implement, and evaluate more effective academic or behavioral curricula, instruction, or multi-tiered services and supports across and within schools and staff
  • Schools to implement a shared staff leadership and committee process so that curriculum and instruction, school safety and discipline, professional development and staff support, home/community involvement and outreach, and student evaluation and multi-tiered supports become integral parts of the school’s functioning
  • Staff to plan the within- and cross-disciplinary curricular units and instructional processes needed to implement effective cooperative and project-based learning units, activities, and experiences to enhance students’ deeper problem-solving skills and their ability to apply academic information and skills to real-world applications
  • Students to have opportunities to experience elective (art, music, technology), enrichment (robotics, culinary arts, community-based externships), or extracurricular (athletics, clubs, performance, publication) opportunities that have been squeezed out of school day or that can enhance students’ educational horizons


As noted above, there are many benefits to extending the school day or the school year. At the same time, schools and districts need to evaluate exactly why they are taking these steps- - using the extended time to address and solve the compensatory reasons for needing more time, and devoting the extended time to school, staff, and student enhancements.

Ultimately, as always, we need to focus on students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes, and how academic engagement can be maximized. We also need to focus on the Return-on-Investment- - recognizing that extended school time does involve additional costs and resources.

To close, I want to highlight another situation (coming up) which “costs” schools and students innumerable hours of lost instruction- - from the time when testing ends to the last day of school. This is the loss as “instructional” activities become focused more on entertaining and occupying students’ time, than to teaching and educating them “bell to bell.” This occurs as school staff, simultaneously, begin the slow collaborative disengagement process that culminates in their fully disengaged summer break.

I am not being critical here. From (again) a return-on-investment perspective, if a business were to “blow off” four weeks of its fiscal year or provide minimal levels of customer service, it probably would not soon be in business. We need to be mindful of our educational mandates and responsibilities- - and that includes bell-to-bell, day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month instruction.

Meanwhile, I hope that this discussion has triggered some thoughts and plans. THANK YOU for everything that you do for your students and communities. Have a great week.