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Do longer hours equal more learning?

Pressured to produce better students, 10 Massachusetts public schools pack more hours into their schedules.

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It's a typical "Wacky Wednesday" at Salemwood School in Malden, Mass. That's Principal Ron Eckel's affectionate and slightly exasperated term for a weekly cycle of enrichment classes. In the afternoon, various sets of teachers gather for collaborative planning while their colleagues and some community partners offer classes that combine fun hobbies and academic skills – everything from gymnastics to math games to stitching folk-art Penny rugs.

It's only possible because the 1,200 students at this K-8 school spend nearly two more hours a day here than they did last year. Salemwood is one of the pioneers in an unprecedented statewide initiative – and a nascent national trend – to extend the public school day.

The pressure for schools to boost student achievement has prompted increasing numbers of education reformers to eye longer school days or years.

"We feel the country needs to move in this direction.... Nobody is saying the agrarian schedule of 180 days, 6-1/2 hours a day is the right schedule anymore," says Jennifer Davis, president of Massachusetts 2020, a nonprofit that helped develop the program that 10 schools have been piloting this school year. "We've put in place higher standards, we have a much deeper curriculum, and yet we haven't changed the schedule [for most public schools]. It really doesn't make any sense."

Improving education isn't just a matter of tacking on more time, Ms. Davis and others caution. But if it's used to make room for better teaching methods, it could help close achievement gaps and make school more rewarding for all students.

In Massachusetts, competitive grants of $1,300 per student are given to schools that redesign their schedules to add at least 25 to 30 percent more time. The plans must include extra instruction in core subjects like reading and math, enrichment classes, and professional development for teachers. Support from unions, parents, and community groups are essential as well. Some preference is given to schools with a high incidence of poverty.

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