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Extending the School Day

The Wallace Foundation's "Reimagining the School Day," points the way towards creating the "community schools" necessary to provide educational futures for our most economically disadvantaged children. It includes another good report, "More Time for Learning," by the Education Sector's Elena Silva and Susan Headden, on extending the time in school.

The best thing about the presentation, however, was the Introduction, "Five Troubling Facts and a Way Forward," which was authored by Christine DeVita, the founding president of the Wallace Foundation. Hopefully, this is a sign that data-driven "reformers," like the Ed Sector, are learning from traditional reformers, like the Wallace Foundation.

Ms. DeVita worries that realistic solutions like extended learning are being derailed by fights over terminology and turf. So, policy makers are growing impatient, meaning that we "risk getting nowhere fast." She thus issues a "friendly challenge" to stakeholders, starting with a commitment to take the risks of sharing data. Even better, DeVita affirms that, "it is high time we recognize that schools can't do it alone." (emphasis by DeVita)

In the only significant criticism of the data-driven accountability hawks that will be included in this post, I must point out that the Education Sector is a part of the "reform" coalition that launched a no-holds-barred educational civil war. Its rushed approach to "reform" was based on blaming individual teachers and schools, and teacher-proofing instruction, as well as democracy-proofing local school systems. As long as the Ed Sector and their allies demand that high stakes be attached to data, the sharing of accurate information is unlikely.

Having gotten that out of my system, the best thing about Silva's and Headden's report is that it addresses chronic absenteeism. To policy analysts, truancy might seem to be "peripheral" to extending school hours. But inner city teachers know that it is the single biggest problem faced by our most troubled schools, and that NCLB put a premium on hiding crucial absenteeism numbers. We should have invested in longitudinal data systems for early warnings and interventions in regard to truancy, rather than building gold-plated data systems for firing teachers, under the assumption that classroom instruction, alone, could close the achievement gap.

Silva and Headden argue, "whether they rely on old-fashioned books or the newest apps, expanded-time programs can rise or fall based on the content of their materials, so program leaders must choose their teaching tools well." Even better they cite PBS as a promising partner for creating games, iPad applications and other after-school-friendly materials.

Fantastic!!! It is nice that policy people are continuing the endless discussion on curriculum and standards, but let us immediately notice that America already has the two greatest curricula that a democracy could want. They are the programs produced by PBS and NPR. Let's concentrate on bringing them into game, and replace nonstop test prep with engaging instruction.

Thirdly, "More Time for Learning" offers a corrective to education's "culture of compliance," where districts often squander Title I anti-poverty money rather than risk violating arcane federal rules. To their credit, the Obama administration has listened to local educators regarding the reality and perception that government regulation has stood in the way of holistic methods of serving kids.

A fourth proposal offers even more realism. Accountability-driven "reform" has concentrated on boot camp-type solutions to turnaround schools that may toughen teachers up, but that are guaranteed to burn them out. If we want the battle against intense concentrations of generational poverty to be sustainable, we must heed the experience of "Citizen Schools." They bring in, "'a second shift of educators' -- a team of full-time trained educators and part-time volunteers with expertise in areas ranging from arts to engineering -- into schools to work with students on engaging, educationally sound projects."

It is time to realize that schooling is a team sport. I celebrate the Wallace Foundation for helping recruit the Education Sector into the collaborative side of reform. I hope my complaint about the data-driven crowd does not interfere with peace-making efforts by traditional reformers. As the foundation explains, we are facing a period of austerity at a time when we need to invest in more hours of high-quality learning. We cannot afford billions of dollars to destroy "the status quo," and attack teachers and unions, and still have enough resources for kids. Extending the school day, like schooling and like school reform, must be a story of addition and multiplication, not subtraction and division.

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John Thompson

John Thompson was an award-winning historian, lobbyist, and guerilla-gardener who became an award-winning inner city teacher after crack and gangs hit his neighbo...