Every day, Monday through Friday, I wake up bleary-eyed and force myself to walk towards the bathroom. I follow and maintain the same morning rituals, ending with a quick pep talk to myself.

I am not going to lead you differently. Like millions—perhaps billions—of workers around the world, I have to psych myself up to go to work. My job is not physically exhausting, so I don’t have to psych myself up like construction workers, fire fighters or even 1992-era Hulk Hogan might have to. My work is not soul-crushingly boring either, so I don’t have to encourage myself to do my best Daria impression. My work consists of attempting to successfully run an extended learning time education program for a middle school in New York City and pep talk time is a very important part of that.

Time is one of the greatest resources schools have. The ability to map out and schedule every minute of a student’s day clearly and productively has a huge impact on student success rate. Time in school is measured in two dimensions. The first dimension being how much time a student stays in school. There is not much variance across America; students spent about six and a half hours per day, 180 days per year and between 720 and 1200 instructional hours (depending on grade level) at school. The second dimension is how students spend this time. There is more of a variance across states, districts and schools in how they allocate this time. 

Extended learning time can be defined as lengthening the school day or year to focus on both core academic learning and enrichment activities, striving to enhance student educational opportunities and success. At its most basic level, extended learning times main tenement is that more quality time in the classroom is a good thing for students. 

The concept of extended learning time has emerged as a promising change in policy over the past few decades. In recent years, organizations such as Massachusetts 2020, Harvard Family Research Project and Citizen Schools have led the charge for additional learning hours. 

The model of extended learning time is the educational policy question of our time. Debating how students spend their time in the classroom, rather than simply focusing on how to increase student success rates, will produce more fruitful results and better educational systems. 

Without extended learning, our students fall behind their peers internationally. We are already starting to see it. A study conducted by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance last year found that international students are simply outpacing their American counterparts. In a recent international test, students from Shanghai outscored every other school system in the world, even though it was their first time participating in such a test. American students’ scores? Twenty-fifth in math, seventeenth in science and fourteenth in reading internationally. 

In a 2009 study conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, students in the United States ranked twenty-fifth among the thirty-four participating countries. We rank behind countries such as China, Hong Kong, Finland and Canada. We are not at the bottom of the list, but we are far from the top. We are becoming complacent with mediocrity.  

Put aside how these low scores might affect our present and future economy (it does) or what it says about our social and political decision makers (a ton) and just think about how downright embarrassing this is to us as a country—a country that prides itself on nothing but excellence and exceptionalism. Extended learning can disrupt this troubling trend and help close the achievement gap both internationally and domestically. 

Let’s look back to America, specifically New York City. New York City is often called the financial and cultural center of the world. It’s also one of the top three politically important cities in America. In 2011, New York City had a high school graduation rate of sixty percent. Only twenty-nine percent of those students were deemed “college ready,” which means they scored high enough on remedial English and math scores to take freshman college level classes. 

Why is this happening, especially when New York City schools spend upwards of $18,000 per student every year, which is only second to Washington D.C. in school district spending per student? That’s a lot of textbooks and pencils, let alone other resources that go into running and maintaining a school.  How is it that New York City pays this much money per student and gets these unsatisfactory results? 

Throwing money at a problem does not fix it. Shift your gaze to Atlanta, Georgia where per pupil spending is roughly $13,900. With over 100,000 students, this is a savings of $410 million for the city, compared to New York City. However, it isn’t just the savings that matter. According to the NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress), the New York City school system is second to last of ten cities serving 100,000 or more students. Number 1? Atlanta. 

Obviously it’s not just not a question of just money why students are underperforming. The answer lies in a combination of social issues coupled with the fact that students spend more than eighty percent of their day outside of the academic classroom year round. How can we expect things to change when students spend a majority of their time outside of school? At current levels (six and a half hours per day over 180 school days), students have roughly 1170 classroom instructional hours of a possible 4,320 hours during school days. That’s only twenty seven percent of their school days spent inside a classroom, without counting weekends and breaks into the mix. This is, quite frankly, unsustainable.

People are starting to recognize this. Recently in his State of the State address, New York governor Andrew Cuomo spoke of extended learning time as one of his main focuses for education policy. His announcement of a competitive grant program for districts that extend their school days excites the race to close the achievement gap and is a small victory for advocates of extended learning time. If school districts opt-in to this program, the state will pay one hundred percent of the costs associated with running the extended day. 

“When it comes to education, I say two words: more and better,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said. “We need more learning time in this country, not just in this state…. The advantages of more education are clear.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has also been a huge proponent of extended learning time, stating: “Whether educators have more time to enrich instruction or students have more time to learn how to play an instrument and write computer code, adding meaningful in-school hours is a critical investment that better prepares children to be successful in the 21st century.” 

Duncan also advocates for extending school weeks to six or seven days, with the school year itself being ten to eleven months long. State governments—the big players in education reform—are also seeing the merits of an extended learning day. For instance, starting in the 2013-2014 school year, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee will institute up to 300 more hours of schooling during each year of a three-year pilot project. The institution of extended learning time will reach and help 20,000 new students in forty schools in this new program with the hopes of expansion after the initial three years. All signs are pointing to extended learning time becoming a real and positive player. 

Tomorrow, I will wake up, all bleary-eyed and half asleep. I will go about my morning routine of showering, dressing, drinking coffee and reading the morning news. Yet before I leave, I will go to the mirror, like I do every morning, for my pep talk. It will look much less like Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday or Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross and more along the lines of a quick reminder—A reminder students need extended learning, that we are all falling behind so we need to work harder, longer and better than ever before. If we fail, then we are doomed to submit to the terrible disease of mediocrity. We can do better.