September 27, 2010

This week, President Obama repeated his support for longer school years, pointing out that in many countries, kids attend school a full month longer than American kids. Of course, in some ways, it does not matter what the president thinks of this. School years are set on the state and local level. The federal government could provide some incentive funds for such an idea, but largely the issues of money and teacher union contracts affect the issue.

But, as you will see in some of the material to follow, there is far from conclusive proof that longer school years produce better students. No doubt, the studies say, some poorer performing students would benefit. But not all would. And a longer school day might produce even better results than a longer year would. Look at the information in the chart from this report by Edu in Review.

The 180-day calendar is shorter than that of other industrialized countries, and some schools even find ways to shave days even further. A story on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s website said:

“America’s traditional 180-day school year is more myth than reality in Illinois, as a jumble of state laws, rules and waivers allow districts to chip away instruction time, shorten school hours and cut the number of days students come to school.

“While Illinois requires 176 days of ‘actual pupil attendance’ already fewer than most states the vast majority of public school districts dip below that by one or two days and sometimes more, a Tribune analysis has found.

“Some 400,000 students in Chicago Public Schools attend school 170 days, with permission from state lawmakers. A similar waiver allows a suburban district to shave eight days off its calendar so teachers can work on improving student achievement when students aren’t there.

“What’s more, the Chicago Tribune found that in many districts, a day isn’t necessarily a day.

“Hundreds of districts send kids home early or have them come in late even as much as once a week to give teachers time to get training, meet with parents or collaborate. Districts can count these shortened days toward attendance requirements.”

Other voices on this topic

A fair number of studies question whether longer school years really would result in higher performance. The students who might benefit most are the students who have special needs or need remediation, two researchers found. Longer school years would cut down on how much students forget from the end of one school year to the start of the next.

Here is a briefing paper presented in 2009 [PDF] by the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine. The key research points included the idea that extending the school day could be more beneficial than extending the school year:

Quality Versus Quantity
  • “The issue isn’t time per se, but how it is spent
  • “The key to increasing achievement is not necessarily more time in school but maximizing the amount of academic learning time
  • “Any addition to allocated time will only improve achievement to the extent it is used for instructional time, which must then be used for engaged time, which, in turn, must be used effectively enough to create academic learning time
  • “Quality is the key to making time matter … Educators must — to the greatest extent possible — make every hour count
  • “Improving the quality of instructional time is at least as important as increasing the quantity of time in school
  • “Most calculations suggest that a 10 percent increase in time would require a 6 to 7 percent increase in cost but could save parents money in child care costs”

Similarly, a researcher in Germany found that a shorter time in school did not affect average students’  learning of material in the core academic subjects [PDF]. But a report by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and Massachusetts 2020 had good things to say about longer school years.

USA Today reinforced the fact that views on this topic are mixed:

” … in Miami-Dade County, Fla., a three-year program in 39 underperforming public schools that included an extended school day and a longer school year produced mixed academic results, according to a final evaluation released last month. Administrators and teachers experienced fatigue and burnout, and many students did not attend class in the beginning of the summer, the report said.

” ‘Principals and teachers also reported that proficient students felt stigmatized by the mandatory additional time, which was viewed as a punishment rather than enhancement,’ program evaluators wrote.

“Other report findings showed students scored lower on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests in reading or math compared with other students in the county. So it is not enough to ask how many days a kid is in school. You also have to ask what they are doing while they are in class. Half of the teachers who were part of a test group to get 300 more hours of teaching time in a school year said there was adequate time to cover the curriculum.”

So it is not enough to ask how many days a kid is in school; you also have to look at what they are doing while they are in class.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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