High costs, few benefits to longer days at struggling PBC schools

Palm Beach County’s public school system is spending millions of dollars a year to extend the school day at its worst-performing elementary campuses, but a district study indicates the investment often does little to benefit students.

Since 2012, a state law has required an extra hour of reading time at the public elementary schools statewide with the lowest reading scores — initially the lowest 100 statewide, then the lowest 300. This year, 20 county schools made the list, including three charter schools.

But a school district study found that in the program’s first three years, extended-day schools in most cases showed little or no significant progress, raising questions about the effectiveness of the extra hour of reading

In the 58 instances that the program was implemented in a county school between 2012 and 2015, the district found schools made “statistically positive gains” just 22 times, meaning schools in most cases showed no improvements compared with elementary schools overall.

In 10 cases, the schools’ performances actually worsened. In the other 26 cases, the schools made no significant improvements related to other county schools.

The district study, finalized in March, came less than a year after a Palm Beach Post analysis found that the extended-day program was having even less benefit for the students it was intended for: the schools’ weakest readers.

At 16 county schools that provided two full years of extended school days, the number of low-performing students improving their reading test scores actually dropped, a Post analysis of school testing data showed.

Mark Howard, the district’s performance accountability chief, whose department produced the study, said that most participating schools showed improvements during the first year. But performance fell precipitously the next year as the district implemented new teaching strategies and made only a modest recovery after that.

That and other variables, including the switch to new state exams aligned with the new Common Core standards, made it difficult to draw broad conclusions about the effectiveness of the extra hour, he said.

“It’s almost difficult to compare year to year when you’ve had these significant variables coming to the play,” he said. “You’re looking at a group of schools that themselves are dealing with significant challenges.”

Howard and other administrators have pointed out that sustaining rigorous extended-day programs at troubled schools is especially challenging since the state did not give schools any extra money to cover the added costs of paying teachers to stay longer and giving them extra training.

Last year, the school district estimated that the extra hour at 25 district-operated schools cost $9 million.

The extended-day program is fiercely defended by the man who made it a reality, state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who persuaded lawmakers to implement the program in 2012 and keep it going.

He pointed out that many students in extended-day schools make significant progress and that, as it is, Florida’s school day is too short when compared with many other nations with high-performing students.

In an interview, Simmons said that many extended-day schools show considerable improvements. As evidence, he pointed to the school district’s own study, which showed that each year some of the most-improved schools are extended-day schools.

“The fact of it is that hard work pays off, and when schools actually take these children and work with them they not only catch up, they prove they can do as well as other students,” Simmons said. “When done right, it has dramatic results and that’s the reason that we continue to tweak it and ask for people’s input into it.”

An extra hour of class time is an added teaching opportunity, he said, that schools should be trying harder to take advantage of. In cases where extended-day schools are making no improvements, the schools are using the extra time poorly, he suggested.

“They need to work harder and teach these children and give them an opportunity to have success and be a part of the American dream,” he said.

School districts and individual schools have flexibility to use the extra hour to teach reading as they see fit, and research shows that the extra time is having more benefit in some schools than others.

Indeed, the school district’s findings are in line with other studies of the statewide program that have raised questions about its overall effectiveness.

Last year, a review by the state’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability found that students in only 20 percent of the extra-hour schools outperformed demographically and academically similar students at non-participating schools.

And this summer, Florida State University researchers released a separate study that found no measurable benefit of the extended-day program to participating schools statewide.

“While average school reading performance improved among the lowest performing schools,” the study said, “the increase did not exceed the small year-to-year variations expected when measuring initially low student performance.”

The FSU study did not dispute that more reading instruction can help boost student performance under certain circumstances, but it pointed to other research suggesting that the quality of instruction is a more important factor than the length of time spent on teaching.

This year, 20 county schools are under the extended-day requirement. But the school district has decided this year to add only 30 minutes of extra reading time at those campuses, a move that they say is permissible under the state law because all county elementary schools already offer 30 minutes more reading instruction than required by the state.

Florida’s so-called “Low 300” program has been criticized by some educators as costly and ineffective. Last year, Duval County’s schools superintendent called it “a classic example of what’s wrong with education reform in Tallahassee.”

For one thing, educators say, the law requires nearly all students at the affected schools to stay in school for an extra hour, even most students already reading on grade level. Educators say that makes it more difficult for them to target the weakest readers.

The program also does nothing for struggling readers at schools that don’t happen to fall onto the list.

Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen said earlier this year that adding and removing the extra hour as schools go onto the “Low 300” list or come off the list makes it difficult to establish consistent practices at individual schools. It would be better, he said, to spend the resources maintaining rigorous reading programs at all schools.

Simmons said he considers refinements to the requirement each year and that he is open to suggestions to make it more effective.

“It’s not hurting these schools to go an extra hour a day,” he said. “We’re giving them the tools, we’re giving them the opportunity to teach these children.”

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