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Back to December Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 287 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS DECEMBER 2009

Obama Administration Wants a Longer School Day, School Year
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"The challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom," President Obama said earlier this year. He and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, have since reaffirmed that a longer school day and year-round school are among their policy goals for American children. "Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30% longer than our students here," Duncan told the Associated Press. "I want to just level the playing field."

In fact, children in the Asian nations with outstanding performance on international math and science tests do not spend more hours in school than American children. American children spend 1,146 instructional hours per year in school, on average. Children in Singapore, usually the highest-performing nation in mathematics, spend just 903 instructional hours per year. Instructional hours in other top-performing nations are also lower than in the U.S.: 1,050 in Taiwan, 1,005 in Japan, and 1,013 in Hong Kong.

Children in Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong do show up for more school days than children in the U.S., although those days are shorter. American public schools in most states spend a minimum of 180 days in school, while the school year in the other three nations runs between 190 and 201 days.

The performance of students in nations outside of Asia also fails to demonstrate a simple correlation between time spent in school and learning. Italian children spend more time in school than American children, yet fare worse on math assessments. Finland, where students spend just 861 hours a year in school, placed first on one of the other international tests.

Some American school districts and some charter schools have already experimented with lengthening the school day and year. The KIPP charter school network of 82 public charter schools observes a 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. school day, more than three hours longer than the average. These schools also require students' attendance every other Saturday, and for three extra weeks during the summer. Advocates of the longer school day point out that KIPP students perform better than the averages for their school districts on standardized tests; but opponents add that the difference is actually quite small, and represents a surprisingly low yield from what amounts to more than a 50% increase in the hours students spend in school. It is also difficult to disentangle the results of the extra instructional hours from other factors at play in KIPP schools. Many charter schools with average school days and years also outperform other schools in their districts.

Secretary Arne Duncan favors restructuring American society to position government schools as community centers, open 24 hours a day and meeting needs from health care to extracurricular activities to job training for adults. In discussing the alleged benefits of the longer school day and year, Duncan is quick to cite the child care problems working parents face. "Those hours from 3:00 to 7:00 are times of high anxiety for parents," he said. "They want their children safe. Families are working one and two and three jobs now to make ends meet and to keep food on the table." (Associated Press, 9-28-09)

Peter Berger, a Vermont public school teacher and columnist, directly countered Duncan's reasoning in a recent editorial (Education Week, 11-4-09). As Berger notes, the hugely influential 1983 report A Nation at Risk warned policymakers that asking schools to solve problems that "the home and other institutions either will not or cannot resolve" exacts a crippling "educational cost." Berger adds that while he tries to keep his own students safe daily, that is not the purpose of public education. "If American homes aren't safe places for children, that's a problem school reform can't fix," he writes.

Berger also incisively critiques the way Duncan and others have dismissed summer vacation as unnecessary and unproductive, a mere relic of yesterday's "agrarian economy." This complaint "ignores a few facts," says Berger:

First, farms are busy places, even when it isn't July and August, like during spring planting and autumn harvest. Second, it's been a hundred years since most Americans lived in the country, let alone on farms. Summer vacation remained a positive aspect of American life even after most of us had moved to suburbs and cities, and while we were becoming a superpower.

Berger takes issue with the larger assumption that Duncan and others make about children's time in and out of school. "Giving children the summer away from school isn't a waste of their time. Unless we're saying that being home is a waste of their time." This appears to be exactly what some proponents of year-round and day-long school are saying.

Berger's insightful article recommends specific alternatives to solve the problems he doesn't believe longer school days and years can fix. "If some students need remedial help beyond current school hours, schools can offer it to them, as many already do. But we shouldn't compel every child to stay just because some may need to," he writes. He points out that truancy is a serious problem nationwide, with about 10% of 1st-graders chronically absent from school. In districts where many students are poor, the truancy rate often rises above 50%. Chronically absent students cannot learn. Addressing the problem of truancy would be a practical step for districts and policymakers to take.

Berger continues:

We can also address how many minutes and hours teachers are compelled to spend on classroom management, and how much chaos their students are forced to endure at the hands of a disruptive few because perverse regulations, the threat of litigation, and pipe-dream behavior theories continue to rule in our schools.

 
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