A New Learning Day?

Does the traditional 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day fit the bill when we talk about our needs to innovate, close the achievement gap, and boost student achievement?  Is the current model of compartmentalized learning — one that clearly has not achieved its intended goals for these many generations — getting the job done in our 21st century environment?

Last week, EdSec Arne Duncan emphasized that extended learning opportunities were are important component of how economic stimulus dollars should be spent.  One has to believe that a portion of the Innovation Fund and a potential non-negotiable for the Race to the Top may be how school districts integrate outside-of-school-time (OST) activities into the day-to-day learning experience, providing students extensions to the learning day, further opportunities to learn, and the one-to-one interventions they need to overcome some of the gaps in the daily classroom experience.
About a year ago, at an event sponsored by Ed in 08, Chris Gabrieli — the chairman of the National Center on Time & Learning — spoke of recent Center efforts to supplement the learning experience and provide a leg up to many of those students that are tagged as the reason for our achievement gap.  Some of these stories are documented in Gabrieli’s book, Time to Learn: How a New School Schedule is Making Smarter Kids, Happier Parents, and Safer Neighborhoods.  Are Gabrieli’s ideas interesting?  Yes.  Are some of them audacious?  Absolutely.  But in forcing us to think about the learning process and the learning structure a little differently, it gets us to approach the job of teaching differently.  And those different approaches are the key to the innovation that is going to drive the day.
Such innovation may be just what is needed to shake up a system that has clearly grown stagnant.  Last week, Eduflack opined on the notion of extending the school year, while taking a closer look at what can be done to extend the learning day.  From a wealth of research, we know that the learning that happens outside of the 8-3 classroom is just as important as that happening within it.  That’s why we push parents to continue the learning process at home, both during the school year and during the summers.  That’s why we explore year-round schooling.  And that’s why we are recognizing the academic value of OST programs.  The era where OST was defined as midnight basketball is over.  Those programs that are truly effective are those that invest in the social and academic development of the student, enhancing the learning processes and building blocks that are established during the traditional school day.
But how do we move such efforts forward?  After all, it is nice for the EdSec to offer up rhetoric on the value of afterschool efforts, but how does such rhetoric transform into effective policy?  At a time when education dollars are at a premium and we aren’t sure how we are going to fund the core academic day, how do we ensure we are making the necessary investments in the afterschool programs that supplement and enhance the day, programs that give us a real opportunity to break the cycle of mediocrity that has long dominated our public education system?
The first step is likely happening down in New Orleans later this week.  The National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National AfterSchool Association are slated to launch a new initiative — Leading a Learning Day for All Children.  Leading a Learning Day’s goals seem simple, yet essential.  Organizers seek to establish a “seamless learning day where children are engaged, challenged and celebrated,” and where there is “more time for learning and helping children grow and develop with hands-on, active, and project-based learning.”  
Coming out of the Big Easy, NAESP and NAA hope to refocus OST efforts on five key principles:
* Redefinition of student success — Refining what student success means beyond the acquisition of basic skills and including assessments for attributes such as teamwork, civic engagement, and analytical thinking.
* Use of knowledge about how students learn best — Using our research-based knowledge about how children learn and become inquisitive and analytical thinkers to frame their cognitive and developmental experiences throughout the day, early to late and year round.
* Integration of proven strategies to acquire and reinforce knowledge — Recognizing the arts, technology, and service learning are examples of tools to heighten core academic learning, not merely nice things to do to fill children’s time.
* Intentional collaboration across local, state, and national sectors — Building new collaborative structures across sectors in communities and up and down government hierarchies that focus all resources on supporting academic and developmental goals for children.
* New leadership and professional development opportunities — Knowing that while most leadership programs and certification are school-based, the importance of training and compensating educators to build community partnership is growing.
So what, exactly, does all this mean for school improvement?  First off, we need to redefine the learning day to mean far more than the time required by law behind the schoolhouse doors.  We must recognize that if we are to close the achievement gap and make demonstrable improvements in student achievement, we must extend learning opportunities to after school, the weekends, the summers, and other “non-school day” times.
Second, we must recognize that OST is not glorified babysitting.  Afterschool is no longer a holding pen for kids without adult supervision nor is it merely arts and crafts and sports.  High-quality programs are designed to enhance student learning, providing additional opportunities to build core knowledge, develop core skills, and delve deeper into the subjects and concepts that both interest students and are important to their long-term success.
Third, this new dawn of afterschool is completely doable, even with the limited resources of our 2009 economic realities.  It starts with the visions and the examples laid out by organizations such as the National Center on Time & Learning, NAA, and Leading a Learning Day, groups that can all point to promising practices, places where new ideas are working, and students who have been positively impacted by new thinking and even newer actions.  And it is continued by linking the school day with the afterschool day, pursuing core activities like sharing curriculum maps, including afterschool staff in professional development, sharing evaluation data, and jointly reaching out to parents and communities.
Finally, it means recognizing the true value of changing the definition of the learning day.  We need to value all of those who contribute to a student’s academic progress, maximizing the skills and experiences each time and space can best provide for children.  We need to identify more learning opportunities for those students who are falling behind, dropping the misguided belief that students can catch up simply by doing the same (or usually, less) work during the traditional academic day.  And it means recognizing that these investments have a long-term impact on student learning, student health, community safety, and community empowerment.
Words and actions out of Washington, our state capitols, and our school districts all point to a need for new perspectives, new approaches, and
a new view on effective learning.  Is OST the silver bullet for solving all that ails are schools?  Hardly.  But it is an important piece of the puzzle.  For years now, groups like the Mott Foundation and the Wallace Foundation have invested in OST infrastructures in states and cities across the nation.  Success now comes when those investments in inputs are translated into real, outcome-based results.  The principles coming out of New Orleans this week are a strong step forward.  The next step is moving effectively to communicate these ideas with those stakeholders who can put them into practice, getting audiences to change the way they think about afterschool and change what they do with those afterschool hours.  The possibility is there.  Now we just need to seize it.   

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