With millions of students struggling academically and the U.S. Department of Education pushing the deadline for spending some federal pandemic-recovery funding into 2026, there’s both a need and an opportunity for local education leaders to increase learning time.
More time gives students more opportunities to learn and to develop bonds with teachers and peers, allows teachers more flexibility to meet individual students where they are, and can accelerate learning.
School reformers have supported the strategy for years. The landmark 1983 federal reform manifesto A Nation at Risk urged state and local policymakers to replace the then-traditional 6-hour school day and still-common 180-day school year with 7-hour days and school years as long as 220 days. President George H.W. Bush established a National Education Commission on Time and Learning in the 1990s that endorsed more learning time. And President Obama promoted the strategy a decade and a half later.
But increasing the time students spend learning presents significant challenges for educators and education policymakers. Which strategies produce the best results? Which are the most politically palatable? The most cost-effective? This report addresses these and other key questions.
Extended Learning Time Models
There are several ways education policymakers can increase learning time. The additional time can be voluntary or mandatory, occurring after school, during the summer, during school breaks or weekends. In some cases, it can involve changes to academic calendars.
Extended school year
Extended school year programs expand the number of days that students are in school beyond the 180 days typically mandated by states for public schools in the U.S. (Requirements range from 160 school days a year in Colorado to 186 days in Kansas).
There are two primary strategies for adding instructional days—lengthening the school year or adding “intersessions” during vacation breaks.
While the typical 180-day school year continues from August to June, extended-year programs often run for 200 or more days and students start the school year earlier or end the year later than their peers, resulting in a shorter summer break. This is not the same as year-round schooling, which is often used to address overcrowding. Under that model, students typically attend school for 180 days, but schools are open year-round and some students attend during the summer.
Massachusetts launched an Expanded Learning Time Initiative in 2005, establishing a competitive grant program that resulted in participating schools across the state redesigning their school calendars to increase instructional time by at least 300 hours, a roughly 30 percent increase.
Many charter schools have embraced extended school calendars, in some cases providing up to 50 percent more learning time than traditional public schools. The KIPP charter school network, for example, serving 120,000 students in 275 schools nationwide, uses both longer school days and school years. Although specific schedules vary in KIPP schools, extended time was integrated into the KIPP model, with a typical day now spanning from 7:30 am to 4 pm or even later, and additional instruction offered on Saturdays and during the summer.
More recently, two schools in the Aldine Independent School District near Houston, Texas, extended their school years to 210 days during the 2021-22 school year to help students rebound from school closings during the early days of the pandemic. The experiment’s positive impact on student achievement prompted the district to add two more schools to the initiative in 2022-23.
Richmond Public Schools in Virginia launched a pilot program that extends the 2023-24 calendar to 200 days in two elementary schools to help address learning loss during the pandemic. Students at the schools returned at the end of July, a month ahead of Richmond’s other schools.
In contrast, the intersession model adds blocks of days throughout the school year when students can receive additional academic support, including during winter or spring breaks, or at the beginning or end of the school year. Some school districts mandate the sessions for struggling students; others offer them to every student.
The Dallas Independent School District introduced intersessions as part of a $100 million extended-school-year initiative starting in fall 2021. Forty-one schools added five voluntary intersessions of a week each to their school calendars, during which schools invited up to half of their students who could benefit most to participate in targeted enrichment and remediation. Only five schools chose the calendar that would extend the school year for all students.
The Los Angeles Unified School District took a similar, though less intensive approach in 2022-23, adding four “acceleration days” to provide students targeted academic support. The district added two voluntary days over both winter and spring breaks. Many elementary students received small group or one-on-one support focused on literacy and math, while middle and high school students often received tutoring or college and career advice. About 40,000 students participated in the winter session and 30,000 in the spring session; 80 percent of the participants were considered high-need students. The school district is continuing the acceleration days this school year.
Extended school day
Extending the school day typically entails adding 30 minutes to an hour to the traditional 6-to-7-hour schedule, providing students an extra 150 to 300 minutes of instruction per week, or an extra 14 to 28 days over the course of a 180-day school year, based on a 6.5-hour school day.
The extra time allows school districts to create a supplemental period for targeted support, such as tutoring or small-group study sessions. Atlanta Public Schools, for example, during the 2021-22 school year added 30 minutes to the elementary school day for a dedicated intervention block for small-group tutoring to address learning loss.
In 2012, Chicago Public Schools was the first large urban district to expand the length of its school day for all its schools, moving from a 5.75-hour day—well below the national average—to a 7-hour day for elementary students and a 7.5-hour day for high schools. Opposition to extending the school day without additional teacher compensation was a factor that led to a 2012 Chicago teacher strike.
Out-of-school programs, also called expanded learning opportunities, are school-based or community-based opportunities for additional learning and enrichment outside of regular school hours and the standard school curriculum. This includes afterschool and summer-learning programs, as well as tutoring, mentoring, or other enrichment activities.
Because these programs do not require calendar changes and are often optional opportunities, they are more prevalent than extended-day or extended-year initiatives. FutureEd analyzed the way 5,000 school districts educating 74 percent of the nation’s students planned to use their federal pandemic-response funding and found that more than 3,000 of the districts expected to provide after-school, extended-day, or summer programs.
Mobile County School District in Alabama, for example, has dedicated a significant portion of its federal pandemic funding to bolster afterschool and summer programs across its 92 schools. The afterschool program includes homework help and academic support, as well as art, music, STEM, and other enrichment. The four-week summer program includes instruction in math, science, English language arts, and reading, with specialized support for English language learners.
Research generally concludes that increased learning time improves student outcomes if educators use the additional time effectively.
A 2010 review by the American Education Research Association of 15 research studies between 1985 and 2009 found that extended school time can be effective, particularly for students of color and low-socioeconomic or low-achieving students—groups who typically have fewer opportunities for out-of-school learning and are most susceptible to summer learning loss. The researchers note that the quality of instruction, as well as the amount of time added, is a critical factor in seeing achievement gains.
Another review of 27 studies, conducted in 2012 by Child Trends, found mostly favorable relationships between extended-day programs and academic outcomes.
More recently, a 2017 study of a Boston Public Schools’ expanded-learning-time initiative that involved 31 schools adding at least 30 minutes of additional instruction a day between 2015 and 2017 found positive effects on students’ language and mathematics achievement. The results were especially strong in math and for Black and Hispanic students.
Similarly, researchers at the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research in 2018 found significant positive effects on reading achievement under a Florida program requiring an hour of supplemental reading instruction daily through an extended- day program in the state’s 300 elementary schools with the lowest reading results.
A 2020 study by Beth E. Schueler from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education of “vacation academies” or “acceleration academies” implemented in low-performing Massachusetts middle schools found that attendance in the program increased the likelihood of students achieving math proficiency by 10 percentage points on state exams. Achievement in English and end-of-course grades also improved.
And a 2022 research review by Matthew Kraft and Sarah Novicoff found that extending students’ time in class could increase student achievement, if the increased time was used well. “When used ineffectively, extended learning time will produce little benefits for students and can even be counterproductive if this additional time has detracted from more enriching activities,” the researchers cautioned. The study also found that districts that moved to four-day school weeks—a recent trend particularly for small or rural areas aiming to address staffing and funding challenges—yielded mostly negative results. Additionally, the researchers noted that the evidence for extending the school year rather than the school day appeared to be strongest.
Studies have shown that afterschool enrichment and other academic-oriented programs can help improve test scores, decrease the likelihood of course failure, and increase class attendance and graduation rates. Research indicates that such programs are most effective when they provide between 44 and 210 hours of instruction annually for reading and between 46 and 100 hours for math.
Summer programs, too, have improved academic outcomes, provided they give students sufficient high-quality academic instruction. A 2018 RAND study found that students who received at least 25 hours of math instruction and 34 hours of reading instruction during voluntary, district-run summer programs performed better on subsequent state tests than those who did not attend.
Extending learning time comes with significant challenges that educators and policymakers must navigate carefully.
Quality of extra time. Additional instructional time is likely to yield stronger results when it’s used to provide one-on-one or targeted small-group support, and when it’s closely aligned to a school’s curriculum and delivered by qualified educators.
A 2012 study by Abt Associates of Massachusetts’ Expanded Learning Time Initiative found that some schools saw substantial increases in the number of students scoring proficient, whereas others saw little change or even decreases after providing students in 26 schools with 300 additional hours annually. Importantly, the researchers didn’t measure the quality of instruction that students in the schools received.
Amount of extra time. Extending instructional time involves adding enough but not too much extra time. Small additions to the school day or school year might not make a difference, whereas too much could lead to student and teacher burnout. The 2012 study of the Massachusetts extended-time initiative found that significantly fewer students in the schools that adopted expanded learning times looked forward to and enjoyed their time in school and significantly more teachers reported fatigue.
Effective summer programs, the 2018 RAND study found, tend to run for five to six weeks and provide at least three hours of daily academic instruction. Afterschool programs are most effective when they provide between 44 to 210 hours for reading and 46 to 100 of additional instructional time for math, according to a report by the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Child Development. When in a school calendar time is added can also make a difference in student engagement; students, for example, are often less motivated to stay in school into the summer after their peers in other schools have started summer vacations.
Student eligibility. Key questions for policymakers are whether to make extended time mandatory or voluntary and whether to open the programs to every student or target them to those most in need of academic support. Targeted programs are likely to be less costly since they serve fewer students. And focusing on the neediest students allows schools to narrow the programs’ instructional focus, rather than having to address the needs of students with a wide range of learning levels. School districts also need to ensure that students have the transportation they need to participate in the programs and that they attend.
Staffing. Extending school hours for students also extends the working hours for teachers and staff. Buy-in from teachers and staff, as a result, is a crucial ingredient of expanding learning time successfully. Efforts to extend the day and year are often met with significant pushback from teachers and their unions.
In Richmond, Virginia, Superintendent Jason Kamras proposed an ambitious plan to extend the school year for one-third of the district’s students, which the Richmond teacher union and several school board members rejected. In response, Kamras developed a voluntary pilot program, RPS200. Once interested schools’ applications received initial approval, they had to demonstrate support from a majority of parents and teachers, after which they were fully approved by the school board. Any teacher assigned to a school that ultimately adopted the RPS200 calendar was guaranteed placement at another school if they chose to transfer.
Arguing against a longer school year, Melvin Hostman, a member of the executive board of the Richmond teachers’ union, emphasized that teachers have struggled with low morale since returning to in-person teaching and insisted there were more pressing challenges, including late-arriving school buses, student absenteeism, and even a lack of toilet paper in schools, he told The New Yorker.
In Los Angeles, the United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing district teachers, blocked Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s initial proposal to embed additional instructional days across the school year. In response, Carvalho clarified that teachers who agreed to work the additional days would be paid their usual daily rate and moved the days to the start of winter and spring breaks.
A 2013 report from the National Center on Time and Learning analyzed the costs associated with extended time at five different types of public schools in different parts of the country and found that teachers at the schools were paid an increased rate for additional hours worked under terms negotiated with local teacher unions.
External stakeholders. In addition to teachers and other school employees, a range of external interest groups often opposed mandatory extensions of the school day and school year, including the tourist industry and summer camp associations, whose members benefit from longer summer breaks.
But parents are the most important constituency likely to oppose extended time, particularly since the pandemic. A 2021 national survey by University of Southern California researchers found that only 23 percent of parents supported a longer school year and 19 percent supported longer school days to respond to pandemic learning loss. This reluctance could reflect the negative experiences many families had with school during the pandemic. It could also signal the disconnect between many parents’ positive perception of their children’s academic performance and students’ actual achievement levels.
In Richmond, Virginia, parents voiced opposition to Superintendent Kamras’ initial proposal, emphasizing that students needed a break after the stressors of the pandemic. And in Chicago, where longer days were introduced well before the pandemic, parents voiced concerns about adding additional time when the current system was already dysfunctional.
Communicating the educational and child-care benefits of longer school days and school years is critical to winning the support of parents and overcoming the opposition of the tourist industry and other outside political actors.
Cost. The 2013 National Center on Time and Learning report found that the cost of expanding learning time ranged from $290 per student for an additional 132 hours of instruction annually (equivalent to 20 days) to $1,695 per student for an additional 540 hours (equivalent to 83 days), a figure that seems conservative, given that annual per-pupil spending averages $13,200 nationally and 83 days constitutes nearly half a typical school year. The report found that transportation costs made up roughly 2 to 3 percent of the added costs.
The Massachusetts Expanded Learning Time initiative initially provided $1,300 per pupil to schools who received the grant (the state later added an $800 option for schools to apply for). A review of the program found that more than 70 percent of the $1,300 went toward instructional staff salaries, followed by 10 percent for support staff. Administrators, contractual services, supplies, and fringe benefits made up almost all the remaining 20 percent.
Los Angeles Unified’s acceleration days cost $611 per student per day for the first two days added, which is significantly higher than the state’s per-pupil funding of $132 per day for the entire 180-day school year—a high price tag considering that less than 10 percent of the district’s students actually showed up.
In Richmond, teachers in the two schools with extended school years receive $10,000 bonuses and principals receive $15,000 bonuses. Additionally, teachers moved to 11-month contracts. Richmond school officials have estimated the personnel costs for the extended year at the two schools to be $2.7 million, an almost 25 percent increase in the total budget for the two schools.
Teachers and other staff are often paid at higher-than-normal rates as a condition of working longer hours under local collective bargaining contracts, something that’s typically not the case at charter schools with longer school years.
Many school districts are currently using federal pandemic-response funds to cover the cost of extended learning time. Once the emergency money runs out, they will have to find alternative funds. Other potential federal funding sources include the U.S. Department of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Center grants, which can be used to fund afterschool and summer learning activities.
Ultimately, meeting students’ academic needs post-pandemic demands schools provide as much high-quality instruction as possible. Expanding the school day, the school year and after-school and summer programs are all effective strategies to reach that goal, research suggests. But all have unique implementation challenges, and policymakers need to select the options that best suit their local political and policy landscapes. As always, they must then implement those options effectively if they hope to maximize the benefits of increasing instructional time.
Research Associate Kristian Thymianos contributed to this explainer.