Education Opinion

Supersize it, Secretary Duncan?

By Susan Graham — April 21, 2009 3 min read
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“It doesn’t matter how poor, how tough the family background [or] socioeconomic challenges,” Duncan said. “Where students have longer days, longer weeks, longer years -- that’s making a difference.”

So the best school would be one that meets 24/7? Is more better or is it just more?

I find this interesting because just a week ago I was looking at The Washington Post Magazine Education Review which is a popular advertising venue for private schools. You know what? Not one of those private school ads marketed “longer days, longer weeks and longer school years.” Nor did they tout “data driven” programs with “benchmarked assessments” that inform the “accountability system.”

What do private schools market instead? They speak of “creative curriculum” with “child centered instruction” that provides “individualized attention.” This is delivered by “gifted” and “caring” teachers who are part of a “community” rich in “tradition.” If the well educated, well heeled, and well connected who are ready to pony up $30,000 annual tuition want this for their own kids, I wonder why it isn’t a good choice for all kids. Wouldn’t children who have less advantaged backgrounds benefit from this kind education as well?

But small classes are expensive! Besides, there is research that says class size doesn’t matter when the measurement of success is bubble-in test scores. All things considered, the economists, who are making education decisions these days, maintain the return on (public school) investment just doesn’t justify small classes. And really, how much difference do just one or two more kids per class make anyway? So class size continues to inch up with high school classes often having 35 or more students in a section.

What I don’t understand is why longer days, longer weeks, and longer years will solve the problem of poor school performance. It may be true that India, Japan and China have more student contact hours, but that is hardly the only variable that marks the difference between our education system and theirs. Here in the United States, the schedule of many prestigious private schools is more like the 14-week collegiate semester than the 18-week public school semester. Why are the most elite K12 schools and our universities doing well if they have shorter school years?

What concerns me most is this—if we are going to keep kids in school for longer days, weeks, and years, exactly what will they be getting more of during that time? More of what they’ve been getting? Because that hasn’t been working all that well, has it?

Longer school days, weeks, and years are hardly cost neutral. They will carry a hefty price tag for transportation, food service, energy costs, and building and administrative support staff as well as for extended teacher contracts. Urban high schools are plagued by dropouts as it is. It seems unlikely that a longer school day, week and year will encourage at-risk students to hang around Why not invest in the smaller class sizes that are a major draw for private schools? Might this be a better use of resource? Maybe loading up at the all-you-can-eat buffet of education is not the best way to go. A smaller portion of instruction that is thoughtfully planned, well prepared and served in a pleasant setting might be more appetizing and more nutritious. Maybe more is just more.

It seems to me that there might be an unacknowledged perception that we can justify spending for quantity of education, but investment in the quality of the learning experience is an extravagance. After all, those kids are there to learn, not to be coddled. A longer day, week and year provides a measurable investment for dollars spent, but does it provide assurance of a improved productivity? Would a smaller class where distractions are fewer and instruction is more targeted, increase the efficiency of the unit sufficiently to offset the greater operation costs?

Is more better? Maybe, but maybe less can be more too. Some successful charters have focused on quantity of one-to-one contact time and seen positive outcomes. Most successful privates have built reputations for excellence on intimate personalized instruction in small classes.

Is increasing the serving size of the same school experience the answer? I don’t think so. Supersizing the school day, week, and year may be more filling, but it isn’t more nourishing, and it doesn’t go down any easier.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table 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.