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Does More Classroom Time Mean More Learning?

Every year about now, students are focused more on summer vacation than on learning. This places enormous pressure on teachers to command their attention. Yet despite the reality of the situation, reformers insist on expanding the school year and school day, arguing that students in this country aren't in school as long as students in other industrialized countries. (They fail to mention that Finland, which is acknowledged to have the best schools, requires students to spend the fewest number of hours in the classroom in the developed world.)

Cynics counter that if public schools here are as bad as reformers maintain, then why subject students to even more of the same inferior instruction? There is much logic to this position. But I prefer to seek evidence about the benefits of extending the time students are in school, if, in fact, there are documented benefits.

The results, however, are inconclusive, despite what Chester E. Finn Jr. maintained in an essay published in The Wall Street Journal that argued for school on Saturday ("The Case for Saturday School," Mar. 20, 2010). Massachusetts, which is known for the quality of its public schools, serves as a case in point. The state identified 19 schools serving more than 10,500 students that it believed would be good candidates. It added about 300 hours to the school year. Although some students posted greater academic gains than the state average, the results overall were mixed. The Boston Globe published an update on Massachusetts's plan on Apr. 4, 2011 ("Change begins at ailing schools").

Miami-Dade County introduced a pilot program extending the school day and year at low-performing schools. A 2009 evaluation produced mixed results in academic performance. Moreover, teachers reported fatigue as a result of the abbreviated vacation time, and some students simply did not attend summer school.

If anything, the evidence shows there are benefits to fewer days in school. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, the four-day school week has been in existence for decades. By lengthening the school day so that overall instructional hours were not cut, the reduced week has resulted in significantly lower absenteeism among students and teachers, lower dropout rates, and fewer discipline problems. The kicker was that test scores not only didn't fall, but they actually rose.

Although I look forward to further studies, I expect them to show similar outcomes because the key is not the number of hours spent in school but the way the time is spent there. This is where cynics are correct. If something is not working, merely subjecting students to more of the same is absurd. What needs to be done is to change the curriculum and adjust instruction accordingly.

How would this work? We know that out-of-school factors are crucial to learning. During the summer particularly - although not exclusively by any means - students from advantaged backgrounds enjoy enrichment in the form of travel and other cultural activities that their disadvantaged classmates are denied. For starters, why not use the extended school year calendar to provide all students with frequent field trips geared to stipulated goals, or make these trips a regular part of the traditional school year?

I realize that this enrichment will come at an additional cost at a time when school budgets are already tight. But as Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1891: "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." Some things never change.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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