Many students across America are enjoying their final days of summer, but for some, the break has been shorter and this year’s school days will be longer than before. In hopes of improving American education, policymakers and principals are pushing for students to spend more time in school, a policy that has gained momentum while producing mixed results.
“When our children are struggling, when they need to learn more, the most important thing we can do is spend more time working with them,” said Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, in a 2009 interview. When asked how many months a year American students should be in school, he jokingly said 13.
In 2009, Duncan announced the U.S. Department of Education would dedicate $3.5 billion in school improvement grants to America’s lowest achieving schools. He also required the schools to adopt one of four reform models, two of which included “increased learning time,” usually defined as “using a longer school day, week, or year schedule to significantly increase the total number of school hours.”
Between 2009 and 2012, the number of schools with significantly longer days or years jumped from 655 to 1,002, according to a report from the National Center on Time and Learning. These schools average 7.8-hour days compared to the standard 6.5.
But a study by the New York City Charter Schools Evaluation Project emphasized association does not mean causation when it comes to more time in school and higher achievement.“What it seems safe to say is that a package that combines a long school year and a long school day is associated with more positive achievement effects,” the study concluded.
Critics of the movement toward more time in school emphasize the importance of quality over quantity. In 2010, Brennan-Rogers in New Haven, Conn., a public school for pre-K-eighth grade, added an hour and 25 minutes to its school day, but that extended schedule only lasted a year. The Hechinger Report describes how the school has instead focused for the last three years on improving instruction. Brennan-Rogers Superintendent Garth Harries told The Hechinger Report, “We’ve focused on making the time that we have already with the kids more useful, more powerful.”
Advocates of increasing school time argue kids have unequal out-of-school learning opportunities, which contribute to the achievement gap between poor and middle-class kids.“By the time they reach sixth grade, middle-class kids have likely spent 6,000 more hours learning than kids born into poverty” because their parents can give them opportunities like extra-curricular activities, summer camps, and field trips, the After-School Corporation claims.
In order to close that gap, schools are offering expanded after-school programs. New York City announced in June that middle school students in 562 schools will have after school programs available to them this fall, compared to the 231 current programs. The New York programs include more than academics, also offering dance, music, and other recreation. “This is another way to get that extended learning time,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said when he announced the plan in March.
Part of the pushback against extended learning time pertains to cost: The estimated price for 540 hours per year of after-school programing in New York is $3,000 per student.
Another pushback to school schedule changes comes from concerned parents. Vermont Save Our Summer Coalition laments what would be lost if summer break is shortened: “outside-the-classroom learning, exploration of the natural world, community-building, family time, and rejuvenation.”