It Takes A Community To Sustain ELT Reforms

This post was originally published in The Quick & The Ed.

Lucy FriedmanNo one has done more than the Obama administration to stimulate schools and communities to expand the frozen-in-time schedules of the traditional public school day and year. But in “Off the Clock: What More Time Can (and Can’t) Do for School Turnarounds,” Education Sector’s Elena Silva warns that the current wave of school-time expansion—seeded by the administration’s federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) program—could lead to a crushing let-down.

“The best ELT (expanded learning time) plans have real potential to improve student learning,” Silva writes. “But many of today’s ELT adopters, constrained by limited and temporary funds, are effectively favoring quantity (of time) over quality. And they have no plans for sustaining even their modest ambitions. The inevitable result of these shortcomings will be failure: a promising movement fades, improvement strategies falter, teachers get fed up and leave.”

How can we prevent ELT from becoming a fashion that rips through schools on the way to wherever reforms go to die? We need to think differently about the current limitations regarding who delivers instruction, and we need to sustain promising approaches long enough to see results.

Let me start by stipulating that more learning time alone is not a cure for anything. It is, in Silva’s apt term, an “enabler,” a key turnaround element that allows schools to undertake comprehensive reform, strengthen their instruction, and give all kids the mix of learning each one needs.

Click to view the report's accompanying infographic

That confirmed, let’s talk about how to sustain school reinvention once temporary funding streams run out. Each of TASC’s K-8 ExpandED Schools partners with an experienced youth-serving organization, like Boys and Girls Clubs. The community organization brings its staff members and resources into a school, which now has a much larger, more diverse team of adults who can do a combination of things. They can add arts and hands-on science instruction into the curricular mix, help teachers offer small-group instruction, and fortify kids socially and emotionally against the stresses that could otherwise translate into chronic absenteeism or distraction. These schools are thinking differently about who can deliver instruction in addition to certified teachers. Collaboration and shared ownership of student data—and accountability for student results—are essential to these partnerships.

There’s a reason we think this whole-community approach is the only one that can sustain longer learning days or years in the long term. Let’s pull back from the school-level view to look at an entire municipality. The way we run government in most cities and counties is to disperse public funding for the school system and other services for kids—summer programs, after-school programs, mentoring, apprenticeships—across a myriad of agencies, each with a complex set of funding streams and rules for eligibility.

Unless we expect a city to take down its whole stratified system and re-build it into a model of coordination, we need to find ways to pull far-flung resources, including federal innovation funds, into a redesigned learning day centered on the place where kids are: school. Organizations like TASC and our partners in Baltimore and New Orleans (the Family League of Baltimore City and the Partnership for Youth Development) help schools and community organizations build these partnerships for school redesign. Partners can access funding neither would be able to get without the other. This leveraging of funds contributes to sustainability.

Because this approach relies on the principal, teachers, parents and community to work jointly to design and deliver instruction and learning opportunities, new expectations for schools are collectively established, and all are mutually invested in the continuation of expanded learning.

Perhaps this strategy will not work in the most sparsely populated corners of the United States, where schools lack even a 4-H with which to partner. But partnership-building doesn’t require the resources of a metropolis like New York or Chicago. Look at what Say Yes to Education is doing in the nation’s 167th largest city, Syracuse, N.Y., by pulling everyone from City Hall, the school district and Syracuse University into a citywide extended learning project.

“Good schools are made by strong networks that support and demand great leaders, who create and cultivate effective teams of teachers, who really know what and how to teach students,” Silva writes. I’d add parents and community educators to the team. Now we’ve got a network that stands a chance.