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At the beginning of the summer vacation, the Hungarian Institute of Educational Research and Development had the privilege to host Mr. Chris Gabrieli, leading educational reformer and a strong advocate for expanded time schools in the United States. Mr. Gabrieli, who is of Hungarian background, was in Budapest on vacation, and took his time to give a talk about longer schedules and its effects in the US, and then answered all of our questions.
Travelling the world, he is surprised to meet the same challenges in the field of education in such different countries as the United States, Britain and Hungary. This can be summarized in four main points:
1. Everybody is unhappy about their education system, even the countries that score very high in international studies for measuring skills and competences (PISA). For example the Chinese worry about the lack of creativity of their students, and ask themselves whether the amount of pressure that is put on them can kill off creativity?
2. Everyone is worried about excellence, that is, to have students who can compete globally. There is a fear in the US that the country does not score well enough compared to other high-income countries, and that this can lead to a weaker position in a globalized economy.
3. Everyone is worried about the achievement gaps: what to do with those students who score very low in the competence measurements, what will they do in today’s economy?
4. Everyone is worried about the implementation gap: How can the school system be changed, how to control what actually happens in a classroom?
The idea of the extended schedule started to intrigue Mr. Gabrieli upon reading statistics that in the United States, where the calendar comprises 180 school days per year, and a typical day is about 6.5 hours, children spend only 20 % of the time when they are awake in school. The situation is not better in Hungary, where we have 181 school days per year, and the school day may be even shorter for younger pupils. This is especially alarming when we think about to what huge differences this can lead to, depending on the social-economic status of the student. Middle-class parents tend to (and have the possibility of) filling in the time of their children with extracurricular activities, whereas students from lower income families usually do not have the chance to participate in such activities. For students whose parents do not value education, or do not know how to use it, this is very little time spent in education. Also, spending more time in school guarantees that pupils who would otherwise not care about school in the afternoon (that is, who would not do their homework and study) are also spending their time with more practice and more schoolwork. This is pivotal to get them from where they are academically to where they need to be, and it also helps to get them out of trouble by knowing where the student is and what does (s)he do during the afternoon. So, the main argument for the expanded schedule is that it enables schools to fulfill their supposed mission of eliminating class differences and granting equal opportunities for all students, and fighting poverty in the long run.
Time is a resource like money, and it means power and autonomy – Mr. Gabrieli professes. To advance this cause, Chris Gabrieli set up a non-profit organization, with the aim of challenging the system, and to help those who want to be helped. Their activities include giving policy-advice, making proposals about what can schools do with their extra time, and working directly with schools, states and the Department of Education, in order to make it easier for schools to convert to a schedule necessitated by the expectations of a twenty-first century economy.
What does this mean in practice, what can schools use their extra time for?
1. To include more diverse and enjoyable activities in the timetable. Besides academics, schools can include more sports, arts, music and drama, and also teach social and emotional skills, that have a key importance in the workplace, and generally in the life of students as adults. This is also a good tool to make school more enjoyable, and thus motivate pupils. Moreover, it creates a more well-rounded education, and helps the student to become a more diverse person in the end.
2. To have more opportunities to practice the academic subjects, such as mathematics, foreign languages, and reading, which is a critical skill for later success. In the extra time, students can get individual tutoring about the particular part of the lesson that they did not understand, learn more in the classroom, and also teachers can make sure everyone from the classroom has grasped the basic concepts of the actual learning material. Whereas spending more time with algebra may not be overly enjoyable for the students, they are nevertheless proud when they do better in maths, so they understand the importance of practice.
3. To help teachers better plan their lessons. During a longer school day, teachers have more time to cooperate with each other and to reflect on their teaching. In expanded time schools, it is not uncommon for a teacher to get a lesson visit twice a week, whereas in normal schools, classes are visited maybe twice a year, with a week ahead warning. In these schools, teachers do not resent getting class visits, but they rather see it as an opportunity to get important feedback from their colleagues about how they could improve, and they know that they can also give feedback to their fellow teachers. So, teachers are not teaching significantly more in expanded time schools, but they have more time to collaborate, to plan, and to improve themselves.
By expanding the schedule, schools are in a better position to:
1. raise achievements of their students and close the gaps between them
2. enrich education and
3. to empower teachers.
Obviously extra time is not enough in itself for better results; it has to be used wisely. Double time does not automatically mean double progress – however, it is a key feature of success. If one thinks about it, students in expanded time schools get the equivalent of 6.5 years of schooling in only 4 years! This can be realized by either lengthening the days from 6.5 hours to about 8-9 ours, or shortening the summer vacation by a month.
Other than extra time, some important factors that enable students to excel academically are the use of data by teachers (to know exactly where their students are, and what needs to be practiced more, where do they have difficulties with the material) and the creation of a school culture where it is not accepted not to try very hard. It is crucial to break the vicious circle of teachers who do not expect much of their students from minority/lower income family backgrounds, and students who do not expect much from themselves and their teachers. Some schools specifically ask their teachers to give feedback to students’ work in a way that they understand that their work is being criticized because the teacher holds them to a higher standard.
Higher expectations include better behavior. First, an advantage of expanded time schools is that the school does not want to get rid of the student once the class is over, instead it sends the message of „I want you here”, which creates a positive atmosphere. Also, the wide range of activities that are taught make the school a more enjoyable place, which can be a good starting point for better behavior. Second, a system of small rewards and penalties can be implemented, which is useful for two reasons. On the one hand, if the student gets a small penalty for misbehavior, it does not stigmatize him/her, but on the other hand, the message is clear: behavior matters. Third, by offering a wide range of activities, teachers and students can get to know each other in different settings, and different groups. This means that they meet each other in different roles, and seeing how the student who scores very poorly on a maths test thrives in drama class, or seeing how the maths teacher leads the chess class can lead to a much better relationship between teachers and students, and this can result in better behavior.
Such schools have very good tools to get the parents involved, and build links towards the wider community. To fill in the extra time, local arts and sports groups can be invited to come to the school and organize activities for the students. Sporting events usually attract parents who would otherwise never come to the school. Also, if the school offers services that can interest parents (teaching computer skills, assistance with immigration papers, offering English as a second language) than a very easy and effective way of involving them in the life of the school was established. Businesses can come and teach entrepreneurship: they can coach the students and teach some techniques, for example to set up a small business. This makes the school a place where useful skills can be learned, and it is a good motivation for the pupils. Also, internships can be negotiated, which introduces children to adults who can serve as role models: they are college graduates, and they do well in life. These schools can also encourage their students to proceed their education to the college level: in the extra time they have, college visits can be organized, the application forms can be filled in during school time, and teachers can help with the cover letter as well.
Expanding the schedule leaves room to some experimentation: what can we do with our extra time? It definitely allows for flexibility and trials: what if we do not teach all sixth graders together, but split them according to their level, so everyone can go to a class which is best suited for where they are? What if we do not fatigue our teachers by making them explain the exact same material to four different classes in a row, but let them give a lecture for the whole group of four classes, and then split into little teams and provide more individualized tutoring for the students? Can we use software to teach for example mathematics? It can adapt to the level of the student, and uses graphs and animation that a teacher could not possibly do at the whiteboard? Could we use the human resource (the teachers) rather for teaching interpersonal skills, and other sorts of competences that software cannot provide?
There are some capitalist reasons for expanded time schools. If the students are already in the school building, and you pay for the building anyway, why not better use it by spending more time in it? In today’s economy, there is a strong need for high-skilled workforce, and schools should be preparing students for that. Some other nations give more learning time to their pupils (Mr. Gabrieli gives the example of South-Korea, where a law had to be enforced in which limited the schedule of a certain type of school until midnight, because these schools used to teach even later in the night!) and consequently, they get better outcomes from education. So their young people are in a better position to compete for highly specialized professions, and America looses jobs to them.
If there are so many positive features, why not change then the schedule of all the schools in the country right now? Besides the fact that education is not regulated on the federal level in the US, the usual answer that Mr. Gabrieli gets to the question „Why is this the schedule?” is often „Because it was last year’s schedule, and it would be difficult to change.” On a more serious note, teachers’ unions are quite strong in most American states, and they have negotiated strong agreements to have this schedule, and get paid for this.
It is important to note that school schedule can not only be expanded by day, but also by year. The long summer vacation can be problematic for two reasons. First, it is a financial and organizational burden for parents to get supervising for their kids and to find engaging activities in which they can participate during the summer. Second, research was done to measure students’ academic performance at the end of the school year, and at the beginning of the following year (that is, after the vacation). The results proved that middle-class students’ reading skills improved, (supposedly because they read a lot during the vacation) whereas students from lower status families scored lower on the reading test in September. On the other hand, maths skills did not change significantly during the summer. What is considerable from this research is that the vacation is also a time when the gaps between richer and poorer students can widen. Yet, there is parental objection to shorter vacations. Chris Gabrieli has a theory about the possible explanation: he thinks that in the US, where the average vacation of an employee is no more than two weeks, parents tend to see the long summer vacation as the dividing line between being a child and being an adult, and so they do not want to deprive their children of it before it has to be shortened anyway (upon entering the job market). And finally, there are also the usual problems about the new schedule: First, education is an area where reforms are not uncommon, and consequently fatigue from reform is a common feature among teachers. Second, austerity is an issue everywhere. Lastly, there is of course the eternal question of what should be decided locally and what should be decided centrally.
There are also some more serious objections, however Mr. Gabrieli tends to have an answer for all. First, longer school days obviously mean longer working hours for the teachers. How do they respond to that?
To be fair, it must be stated that teachers in America are now paid pretty well, yet they have a very long vacation. In expanded time schools, they might be a bit better paid, but usually such motivation is not necessary, because teachers do not resent having more time to plan and cooperate with their colleagues. That is, their teaching time is often the same as it was in the regular schedule school, but now their preparation time is lengthened. Also, there is more variety in their work: they can teach a regular lesson, and then offer some individual tutoring. Their classes can be more evenly spaced through the day (so they do not have to teach four classes in a row). Moreover, it is already a challenge to find teachers for all the classes that would be otherwise offered as extracurricular activities (chess, ballet, theatre, etc.). If the teacher can offer one of these (e.g. they are a licensed drama teacher besides being a maths teacher, or they just have a hobby which they can teach), then they have meaningfully used one of their extra hours, they did something different than their usual classes, and so the generally do not resent having to work more.
Second, many families organize their lives around the schedule, and middle class parents can in some cases strongly oppose any sort of change in this area. Yet, the very same parents are quietly worried about underachieving lower-status students, so as long as it is not about their child, they can be very supportive of expanded time schools. There is also a strong group of newspapers, some politicians, business leaders and civil rights organizations who support the cause. So do arts and sports organizations, who recognize the importance of widening the school activities, and having time for such classes (drama, art, music, sport) besides traditional literature, math, science and languages.
Third, some people argue that spending 8-9 hours a day in school is too much for a young child. Gabrieli has an answer to that: kindergarten starts early in the morning and children can stay until late in the afternoon: if this is not too much for 5 year old kids, why would it be all of a sudden too long a year later? Longer school day usually does not mean much more academics (although time is spent to improve literacy skills), but a lot more arts, dance and other electives, that children enjoy very much. Also, this means less homework, but at the same time it can ensure that homework is indeed done. Extended schedule schools use software to check whether students have done their work, and if not, they are required to stay in school after the class and complete it. Meanwhile, the computer system sends a message to the parent, informing them that the child would be late because they still have work to do.
Also, the implementation in practice has its difficulties as well, and Mr. Gabrieli was very frank regarding this issue. In the US, there are currently some 1000 expanded learning time schools, out of which 600 are charter schools. This means that they have applied for this programme, which is an advantage, because it was not imposed on them, they competed for it. It is also a sign that there are devoted teachers in the school, keen to stay for longer hours in order to achieve better results with the students. These schools are financed by the government, and cannot charge tuitions. Generally, they have more flexibility than regular public schools, thus they can decide to adapt the longer schedule. Being a charter school also means they have to show certain results -coming from having extra time- in 5 years. If they are unable to do so, the school has to be closed. Mr. Gabrieli estimates a third is doing extraordinarily, a third is doing OK, but another third could not improve their results in any way, despite the longer school days.
Yet, some of the best schools in this system are attended by almost only minority students, and they have shown some extraordinary results. Gabrieli says most American teachers would stand passionately against segregation; however, there is the example of academic excellence in a practically segregated school. He brings up the example of a nationwide experiment, when lower income families received housing vouchers, so they could move out of their segregated neighborhood. It was a carefully planned research, and the results show that the students who could thus leave their former segregated schools, and attend integrated schools, did not improve academically. So integration in itself did not solve the problem.
When asked about the personal motivation behind his work, Chris Gabrieli states that he is interested in helping schools to reach their true aim, that is, connecting children from different backgrounds, and making them succeed and enjoy life. He is worried by the study which shows that children from a poorer background are 2-3 years behind their better-off peers when they arrive to kindergarten. It is also shown that in their family, they have heard 3 million fewer words than children of higher-income parents. In the last 50 years, the achievement gap between lower and higher status students has grown by 50%. The bottom did not sink, but the top has significantly grown: the top 20% of parents (in terms of income) invest some 8800 USD per year to buy educational services for their children outside the school – for the lower 20 %, this is only a 1000 USD per year. As a parent and as a public leader, he feels a sense of responsibility for closing this gap, and granting similar opportunities to all American children.