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(The RAND Blog)

December 14, 2012

Making Extended Learning Time Worth the Investment

by Jennifer Sloan McCombs

Five states are experimenting with adding a substantial amount of time—300 hours, or the equivalent of an additional 45 school days—to the school year in some schools. The goal is to improve academic achievement and give students more time for non-core subjects such as visual arts, music, technology, and physical education.

This policy initiative holds promise. We have compelling evidence that extending academic learning time, especially for lower-performing students, can improve student achievement. We also know that the long break from school during the summer months leads to summer learning loss, particularly for low-income students. Research evidence tells us that expanding time during the day and over the academic year, particularly in high-poverty and low-performing schools, can improve student achievement.

However, adding time does not guarantee effective use of that time. So it is not surprising that results of prior studies on expanded learning time are mixed—with some showing positive effects on achievement and others not.

Maximizing academic learning time requires several things: teachers with strong content knowledge and teaching methods, real-time data that identifies students' strengths and weaknesses, high-quality curricula that can be tailored to student needs, and clear plans for teachers to use the additional classroom time effectively.

All these components require support from school personnel and district administrators. As educators, researchers, and policymakers continue to examine the effectiveness of extended learning time, it will be important to look at how the time was used, the support provided to maximize that time, and the cost of the initiative. These findings will help us understand under what conditions extended learning time is worth the investment.


Jennifer McCombs is a senior policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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