How Extending Learning Time Could Help Students

My first lesson on how time affects education took place in a huge classroom with risers that an extremely ambitious math teacher had stolen from the music department. It was MH-1 (for music hall) in a large East Los Angeles high school full of poor teenagers.

I was not a student. I was a journalist trying to figure out how the pushy teacher with the thick Bolivian accent, who had never taught in the United States before the age of 43, had magically produced one of the level-calculating programs most successful advanced in the country.

His name was Jaime Escalante. One thing I noticed was that if a student was struggling in any of their classes, including beginning algebra, Escalante would wave three fingers in front of the child’s face. This meant that the student had to return to MH-1 at 3 p.m., at the end of the school day, and spend three hours doing homework with the help of older students recruited by Escalante for what was essentially a extracurricular club.

I remembered Escalante’s work after reading a report by the Education Trust, a renowned non-profit organization dedicated to improving student achievement, on how to extend learning time. It contains many thoughtful ideas for district leaders who want to extend the school day by an hour or two, double the length of reading and math time, introduce mandatory summer school, and make other changes.

Teachers are important to the success of extended learning programs, says the report “Strategies for Resolving Unfinished Learning”. They must be certified. Otherwise, they should take additional training in pedagogy and classroom management. Teachers should each have a coach to see their classes each week and make suggestions.

To be effective, the report says, the extended time would need to total 44 to 100 hours per year. The report says educators should come from diverse backgrounds and should be supported and compensated fairly.

A study on purpose: Young Americans spend more time studying, less time working

This corresponds to some extent to the Escalante model. He coached many students after school, mainly due to his magnetic personality, creative teaching, fluency in Spanish, and the support of his principal. He set up summer classes at the local community college so students would be ready for AP calculus their senior year. His students knew that if they had any questions, he could always be found in his cramped little office attached to the MH-1. This made him unpopular with many other teachers at James A. Garfield High School, in part because, to be available to students, he refused to leave his classroom for faculty meetings and other distractions. which he considered a waste of time.

The only weakness of the Education Trust report, as far as I can tell, is its recommendation for smaller class sizes: research shows, it says, “more effective extended learning programs divide students into groups of 10 to 20. Classes of more than 20 students are less efficient. That may be the case, but reducing class sizes is often too costly for school boards.

Education Trust expert Allison Socol told me that district leaders will need to balance what research says is most effective with what is feasible given the resources and support of their communities.

Escalante had its great classroom and after-school time because its principal, a former Airborne Army Ranger named Henry Gradillas, realized early on that the immigrant teacher was a genius. There were often up to 50 students in MH-1, with each row of desks higher than the one in front, in typical music room fashion.

The more children he exposed to his higher expectations — shared by a calculus teacher he trained, Ben Jimenez — the better the school got. In 1987, Escalante and Jimenez produced 26% of all Mexican American students in the United States who passed college-level AP calculus final exams. Word spread when a film was released the following year about what had happened to Garfield.

Most teachers aren’t as bold as Escalante, but find their own ways to extend learning to children they know have hidden potential.

One example is Joel Parkes, a seventh-grade history teacher at Sal Castro Middle School in Los Angeles. Unsurprisingly, he, like Escalante did, uses unscheduled time after the final bell.

“I stay for an hour after school twice a week to provide space for students to get help or do their homework,” said Parkes. He provided the aid without compensation for many years, but just before the pandemic, his district began paying teachers for such work. There is also an after-school program called Beyond the Bell where students receive help with lessons as well as snacks and a chance to play football. Her school also offers special Saturday classes for struggling students four times a semester.

Let’s make a 9 hour school day

Many teachers across the country make their own version of it. Big reforms that require a lot of money and political support usually fail. We should therefore support the efforts of individual teachers like Parkes to take extra time for their children in any way possible.

It would be difficult to quantify such efforts. Too many things happening in too many places. But these one-on-one educators seem to increase their results, which helps them feel good about their jobs and letting others know how it can be done.

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