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Charter schools gain edge from hours, says study

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / May 12, 2010

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Students at Boston charter schools appear to have an academic edge over their peers at the city’s traditional schools because of the additional time they spend in school each year, according to a report being released today.

The extra time in charter schools, roughly 378 hours annually, allows students to receive significantly more instruction in English and math and creates opportunities for them to receive tutoring during the school day, according to the report by the Boston Foundation, a charitable organization that supports charter schools and also works with the city school system on improvement efforts.

The longer school day also is a boon for teachers, the report said, providing them with more time for instructional training and discussing struggling students, analyzing student-testing da ta, and devising plans to help them.

Paul Grogan, the foundation’s president, characterized the additional hours at Boston charter schools as “staggering’’ and a key reason why charter schools routinely outperform other public schools in the city. Charter schools, Grogan said, “are not just adding more time, they are creating more opportunities.’’

The new report is the latest in a wave of research suggesting the benefits, as measured by rising standardized test scores, of a longer school day. Research has documented how adding hours can revitalize the culture of a school, ensuring time for the arts, music, and physical education — areas that tend to fall victim to budget cutting or get squeezed out in a quest to boost standardized test scores in English and math.

An education law passed earlier this year urges superintendents to lengthen the school day or year, among other proposed efforts, as a promising strategy to turn around underperforming schools.

Boston Superintendent Carol R. Johnson is working with the teachers union on adding up to an hour a day at the city’s 12 state-designated underperforming schools to spark a turnaround.

“I think this report reaffirms we are heading in the right direction for more time in our turnaround schools,’’ Johnson said yesterday.

The report stands apart from other research by trying to quantify the additional amount of time students spend at charter schools compared with peers at traditional schools. On average, a charter school day is 8.2 hours — from opening bell to the closing bell, including time at lunch and recess. By contrast, the average day at the city’s traditional schools is 6.1 hours, the report found.

Over the course of a year, charter school students will spend 378 additional hours in school than their peers at traditional schools, the report found.

That number, however, is just an estimate, and the actual figure could be higher or lower. The report’s authors, in calculating the annual number, failed to take into account that some schools with extended days also have half-day sessions once a week.

Also, the calculation only took into account the state’s mandated 180 days of school, and ignored any additional days. Some charter schools start a week or two before Labor Day.

The American Institutes for Research conducted the report for the foundation. It describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan behavioral and social research organization and is based in Washington, D.C.

Researchers relied strongly on surveys, which had a 79 percent return rate, that were sent to principals of 13 charter schools and 135 traditional and pilot schools on several topics, including staffing, scheduling, instruction, teacher training, and student testing.

Having an extended school day and giving principals more flexibility in shaping their staffs were the most powerful tools for success, researchers found.

“They’re gateway autonomies to do other things,’’ said Susan Bowles Therriault, a senior research analyst for the organization.

Therriault said the greatest flexibilities in staffing would enable principals to make decisions on classroom assignments, hiring and firing, and teacher training, and require teachers to work together.

The report follows a study released last year by the Boston Foundation that said charter schools significantly outperformed the city’s traditional schools and raised new questions about the school system’s experimental pilot schools because in many cases they posted “ambiguous’’ or “disconcerting results.’’

The earlier study, which examined state standardized test scores for students of similar backgrounds over a four-year period, did not delve into the reasons charter schools were achieving stronger results. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers, who authored the report, recommended a follow-up.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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