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Published in Print: November 4, 2009, as Marking School Time

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Marking School Time

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When President Barack Obama prescribed “longer school days and school years” in a speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce last spring, it wasn’t the first time the subject had come up. For decades, experts and politicians have called for longer school days and an end to summer vacation. As academic achievement and our global pre-eminence have slipped, the campaign to extend school hours has heated up.

The issue isn’t whether we want American students to grow up to be literate, productive, responsible citizens. The question is, would lengthening the school day and year help achieve that objective? Even if it might edge us in that direction, what economic and social costs would be attached?

The Associated Press recently covered students’ responses to the president’s school-time proposals. One 5th grader declared her intention to “walk straight out the door” if they were implemented. Her comment and the AP’s willingness to spotlight it say more about America’s scholastic problems than any classroom clock could. A 10-year-old who thinks she can walk out of school when she decides she’s had enough probably also thinks she can decide what she should learn there.

I was hardly a classroom shrinking violet, but when I was 10, if my parents and teachers had told me I was staying in school till the moon rose, it never would have occurred to me to threaten a walkout. Experts gush about empowering kids, but we’re really just teaching them to think more highly of themselves than they should. When I made foolish adolescent pronouncements, the wire services never carried them.

Arne Duncan, our federal secretary of education, has joined the chorus deriding summer vacation as a relic of our bygone “agrarian economy.” Inconveniently, his complaint ignores a few facts. 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. Third, our current two-month summer recess became an institution not because of farmers, but largely at the insistence of a 20th-century urban middle class that demanded an upper-class summer out of the city.

The president wants schools to “stay open late and to let kids in on weekends so they have a safe place to go.” I try to keep my students safe every day, but that’s not the purpose of my classroom. It’s been more than 25 years since A Nation at Risk warned that expecting schools to solve problems “the home and other institutions either will not or cannot resolve” exacts a crippling “educational cost.” We need to stop making that mistake.

If America’s homes aren’t safe places for children, that’s a problem school reform can’t fix.

Experts often attribute American students’ disappointing international test results to shorter school days and years. For example, in 2003, Japanese students averaged 926 hours in a school-based education program, while American students spent 799. Japan placed fourth in an international math assessment, while we placed 24th. Finland, on the other hand, spent 861 hours and placed first, while Italy spent more time than we did and placed behind us.

These statistics deserve skepticism, but two things are true. How much time you spend on learning matters. But what you do with that time matters more. That means what teachers do with the time, as well as what students do with it, and afterward, when they’re home.


Proposals for longer days include everything from remedial instruction, which used to be known as after-school extra help, to chess and drama clubs, which used to be known as after-school chess and drama clubs. Proponents also plan to nurture vaguer “nontraditional skills” like “leadership” and “resiliency” in a “seamless learning experience” that includes a “web of community services” as well as opportunities in “relevant real-world settings,” formerly known as after-school jobs.

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.

Proponents of longer school hours contend that “poorer kids” face “problems that interfere with learning,” according to the AP, including “less involvement by their parents,” while children from more-affluent homes benefit from parents who “read to them, have strong language skills,” and “give them learning opportunities.” I suspect many nonaffluent parents would object to that generalization. But even where it is true, the solution doesn’t require longer days and years for every child. 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.

Ironically, at the same time experts are prescribing more school hours, they’re also complaining that American children lack sufficient “playtime.” They’re demanding longer recesses during the school day to meet that “troubling health and school issue.” In other words, instead of sending kids home to play after school, let’s make the school day longer so we can give them more time to play before they go home.

How nuts are we?

If we’re serious about school time, we can address truancy. Roughly 10 percent of 1st graders nationwide are chronically absent. The percentage rises dramatically in districts serving poor children, in some cases ranging above 50 percent. Those children’s scores predictably depress overall school averages, and remediating those students cuts into teachers’ class time with their other students who don’t miss school. Besides, expecting kids who already don’t attend school to attend longer school days and years doesn’t sound like much of a solution.

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.

We can address how much time schools divert to social services. We can address how vague, nonacademic objectives have supplanted academic content. All this folly costs more than a summer every year.

Finally, we can understand that 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.

If that’s the case, we’ve got a more perilous problem than an eternity in my classroom can cure.

Vol. 29, Issue 10, Pages 24-25

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