School & District Management

Do We Really Need a Longer School Year?

By Mike Schmoker — July 07, 2009 3 min read

Suppose you find that your bucket leaks. Does that mean you need a bigger bucket? Not necessarily; you may just need one that doesn’t leak. With the best of intentions, President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are renewing the call for a longer school day and year—for a larger bucket. I believe this is premature.

Like most “structural” (vs. substantive) reforms, this one will consume our time and political energy, even as it postpones our encounter with a more vital, less costly opportunity: making good use the huge number of hours that currently “hide” within the conventional school day and year. If we recovered this time and properly redirected it, the impact on student learning would be greater than any reform ever launched.

There are, in fact, two to three months of learning time waiting to be recaptured within the existing school year. And though our communities and school boards might be surprised to hear it, a majority of educators are aware of this.

In the last few years, I have asked several hundred audiences of teachers, administrators, and union representatives the following question: Would you agree that almost all “worksheets” are a lamentable and unnecessary use of instructional time? More than 90 percent of them agree unreservedly, by show of hands. Then I ask them to pair up and discuss what proportion of the school day or year students spend filling in such worksheets. After some give and take, the average response I get is a minimum of 25 percent to 30 percent—the equivalent of an entire grading period. More than two months.

I then say, “Gee … and I haven’t even mentioned movies.” This invariably provokes honest, almost relieved laughter. In the right setting, educators are refreshingly frank—and concerned—about the actual curriculum, which is starkly different from what the public (and many policymakers) imagine. Teachers and administrators know that the actual taught curriculum is rife with time-killing routines, worksheets, and often full-length films that add little or no value to the school day. Most interesting perhaps is that once educators have a chance to add it all up, they see that changes would add about 30 percent more learning time annually for almost every school in America. And it would cost us nothing.

We’ve known for decades that large chunks of class time are spent on ill-conceived group activities, on settling in or packing up at the beginning and end of class. Moreover, there has been an alarming increase, at all grade levels and in all subjects, of what the reading expert Lucy McCormick Calkins refers to as classroom “arts and crafts.”

Recent studies confirm that this provides an especially ripe opportunity for recovering lost time. In their study, researchers Michael P. Ford and Michael F. Opitz found that in the critical early grades, about two-thirds of the typical “reading” or “language arts” period was spent on “cut, color, and paste activities.” Effective teachers eschew such activities (except, of course, in art classes, where they belong).

Many parents suspect that some of this goes on in schools, but they hope against hope that it is rare or occurs only in low-scoring or inner-city schools. Would that this were so. I recently found these activities to be as, or more, prevalent in schools with their state’s highest academic designation. The fact is, students in most schools spend days at a time in academic classes on questionable group “projects,” on drawing and painting, making banners, castles, book jackets, collages, and mobiles. All of this is in addition to worksheets and movies.

Throughout decades of reform, we’ve never honestly confronted these actualities, or the more disturbing fact that such misguided activities supplant what experts such as the Center for Educational Policy Research director David T. Conley tell us are severely restricted in K-12 education: analytical reading, writing, and discussion in all of the disciplines. These are vital to students’ intellectual development and have been found to be the most critical factors for success in college and the modern workplace.

With a new administration and secretary of education in Washington, this would be an excellent time to honestly, and at long last, come to terms with how time is spent in schools. Then we would be in a better position to decide how much time and energy we should expend in fighting for longer school days and shorter summers.

Events

Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Embracing Student Engagement: The Pathway to Post-Pandemic Learning
As schools emerge from remote learning, educators are understandably worried about content and skills that students would otherwise have learned under normal circumstances. This raises the very real possibility that children will face endless hours
Content provided by Newsela

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management More Than 1 Million Students Didn't Enroll During the Pandemic. Will They Come Back?
Education Week analyzed state data to gather a more comprehensive understanding of this year's enrollment loss.
6 min read
Students participate in class outside at the Woodland Pond School, a private school  located near Bangor, Maine. Maine experienced one of the nation's largest drops in student enrollment this school year, according to an EdWeek analysis.
Students participate in class outside at the Woodland Pond School, a private school located near Bangor, Maine. Maine experienced one of the nation's largest drops in student enrollment this school year, according to an EdWeek analysis.
Photo courtesy of Woodland Pond School
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Sponsor
Drive Improvement in Your School With Harvard’s Certificate in School Management and Leadership
Aubree Mills had two dilemmas she needed to address: One was recruiting and retaining good teachers at the Ira A. Murphy Elementary School
Content provided by Harvard Graduate School of Education
School & District Management Opinion Are Your Leadership Practices Good Enough for Racial Justice?
Scratch being a hero. Instead, build trust and reach beyond school walls, write Jennifer Cheatham and John B. Diamond.
Jennifer Cheatham & John B. Diamond
5 min read
Illustration of leadership.
Collage by Laura Baker/Education Week (Images: DigitalVision Vectors, iStock, Getty)
School & District Management We Pay Superintendents Big Bucks and Expect Them to Succeed. But We Hardly Know Them
National data is skimpy, making it hard to know what influences superintendents' decisions to move on, retire, or how long they stay. Why?
8 min read
Conceptual image of tracking with data.
marcoventuriniautieri/iStock/Getty