This year, nearly half of Duval County public elementary schools will add an extra hour of reading to their day. Most of these schools are required to do so by state law. But some are not.
Under a revised statute, the 300 lowest-performing schools in the state must add an hour of reading instruction to their schedule next year. The law is an expansion of a previous law requiring only the 100 lowest performing schools to add an extra hour.
However, in an effort to improve literacy scores across the county, the district added 11 more schools to the list. It was move met with some highly-publicized resistance from parents at Holiday Hill Elementary, who questioned the merits of the extra hour.
Since then, the district has reached an agreement to make the additional hour optional for families at Holiday Hill, and the controversy has subsided. However, the question of the measure's effectiveness remains.
Carrie Fagen, a clinician at the University of Florida Department of Developmental Pediatrics, said the research is mixed.
“You can really find articles either way,” she said.
One of the more recent studies was a review by the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability released in January. It found that 73 of the 100 elementary schools required to add an extra hour last year had more students reading at or above grade level this year. Seventeen of those schools saw improvements of more than 10 percentage points, and 35 saw gains between 5 and 10 percentage points.
Yet, by comparison, only 20 of the schools with extra reading instruction performed better than similar schools without the extra time. And 13 of the schools with added instruction still performed worse than their peers.
In terms of overall school grades, Florida Department of Education data shows that only about 35 percent of the schools that added the hour received a higher grade this year. The rest received the same letter grade or lower.
“You can find supported that it does work or that it doesn’t work. Some researchers say that this is the best way to help children who need intervention and others say 'Let’s think about the need for play, teacher motivation,'” Fagen said.
Fagen’s colleague Developmental Pediatrics Chief Dr. David Childers said the the additional time is “a good starting point” in the journey to success.
“One of the things that we always have to ask is ‘What is going to be the outcome at grade 12?’” he said. “Reading is going to determine, more than anything else, where you end up in the socio-economic status in our society.”
And where a student falls in the socio-economic stratosphere can also play a role in how well he or she will read from the start. According to state department data, all but four of Florida’s 300 lowest-scoring schools, had a student poverty rate of at least 50 percent.
Laura Bailet has been working with struggling readers for over 30 years. For the last nine, her focus has been on promoting reading success through early intervention as head of the Nemours BrightStart! program. Like Childers, Bailet said the extra instructional time is an important part of the process.
"One way to intensify the reading instruction is to add time so this afterschool program would accomplish that," she said.
However, there are some other critical components to success like small group instruction and using effective curriculum, she said. And she added there is a potential downside to extended days.
“If an hour is added to the school day, then subconsciously, everybody kind of takes the intensity off the existing school hours thinking ‘Oh, well, we have an extra hour to do reading instruction in the afternoon.’"
Fagen, with UF’s Developmental Pediatrics, shares that concern. She said success has less to do with how much instructional time schools have and more to do with how they’re using it.
“What we’re finding, what we need to look at more than extending the day is active instructional time, whether that’s during the six and a half, seven hours kids are on campus during a regular school day or in that extra hour when they’re staying after school,” she said.
That would likely mean more small groups, more student engagement, and more thinking outside the box.
“I think we need to get creative,” she said. “We can gather the information, we can gather what a child’s needs are, but then let’s get creative in how we help that child.”
You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.