A Strategy to Solve Unfinished Learning

As the nation continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and at-home learning continues, there will be a need to help students, especially the nation’s most vulnerable students, complete unfinished learning for weeks, months, and even years to come. Research shows expanded learning time (ELT) is one approach to helping historically underserved students catch up to meet high standards. ELT encompasses programs or strategies implemented to increase the amount of instruction and learning students experience. ELT strategies include afterschool, summer, and in-school programs.

District leaders considering ELT should follow the research and invest in evidence-based methods to support students to get back on track, while also fostering trusting relationships and providing an opportunity for a well-rounded education. Additional time can be beneficial to students, but only if that time is spent in ways that maximize teaching and learning. Overall, leaders will need to ensure that all school time is used especially well after months of unfinished instruction. ELT can only be effective if time during the school day is also used to efficiently and effectively accelerate learning.

In this brief, we focus on ELT programs that significantly increase the amount of new math and/or English language arts instruction delivered to students.

What Do We Know About What Works?

District and school leaders considering different ways to accelerate learning will have to make a number of challenging decisions to meet the needs of students experiencing unfinished learning. District leaders will need to make important policy decisions; school leaders will need to make decisions around staffing, partnering with community organizations or providers, scheduling, and curriculum. With each of these decisions, district and school leaders will have to balance what the evidence says is most effective with what is most feasible given their resource constraints and local context.

How Effective is Expanded Learning Time?

We looked at the research to help leaders navigate complicated decisions. The chart below shows how implementing different features of expanded learning impacts its effectiveness.

Critical Questions for Leaders

Which students benefit most?

Research shows that increasing the number of hours of instruction students receive during the school day (either during nonacademic class periods or by extending the official school day) can be effective for all age groups, types of students, and subject matter.

Below are critical questions to ask, based on available research, as schools and districts are building plans to completed unfinished learning.

How many students should be placed with an instructor during ELT?

Smaller classes are better for extended learning time. They give teachers the opportunity to provide individualized instruction, which can be particularly helpful for students experiencing unfinished learning.

What kind of training and support should schools provide for ELT instructors?

The most effective ELT programs provide all instructors with pre-service training, on-going training, and 1-to-1 coaching.

How should schools extend learning time?

Extra instruction can take place after school, during breaks, or during the summer. Instruction during any of these periods can be effective if the instruction is carried out by certified teachers and if the curriculum is both individualized and aligned with the content in the regular school day. Scheduling decisions should be made equitably to ensure students and families who already face the most injustices do not face additional barriers.

How much additional learning time should students receive?

Research indicates programs that offer 44 to 100 hours of additional instruction have an impact on student learning. Programs that provide more or less extended learning time are less effective in some cases; however, the effectiveness depends on the subject area.

What curricula should schools follow during ELT?

The most effective ELT curricula has content that is aligned with content from the regular school day, and lesson plans that include options for individualized instruction, allowing teachers to tailor instruction to both struggling and high-achieving students.

What is the most effective way to ensure students attend ELT?

Unsurprisingly, ELT’s effectiveness is directly tied to student attendance. Schools can expect the highest rates of attendance if instruction is provided during the school day, since the extra instruction is part of the regular school schedule.

How should schools staff ELT?

Students have greater increases in learning in ELT classrooms staffed by certified teachers because of these teachers’ classroom experience, knowledge of the school day curriculum, and familiarity with state standards.