School & District Management Opinion

More Is Not Better: #TBT

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 23, 2014 6 min read
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The conversation about longer school day and year is continuing. Just this past January in his State of the State Address, New Jersey’s Governor Christie called for a longer school day and a longer school year in his state. A Spring 2011 article in Scholastic’s Administrator Magazine, in support of the longer school days, quoted the National Center on Time and Learning in Washington, D.C. “more than 700 schools (about 75 percent of them charters and the remainder ordinary public schools) have extended their day.” In that same article their CEO, Jennifer Davis reported “districts largely prefer the extended day rather than the more expensive extended-year approach.” Why consider either?

Twenty-four years ago, in 1990 Edweek’s article entitled Is More Better? the solution for making schools better was longer school days and years. The reason it seemed not be catching on was financial. Following that logic, if schools were funded differently and finance wasn’t the stumbling block, would longer school day and year become a reality? If U.S. students attend school for fewer days than those in West Germany, Japan, Great Britain, and South Korea, so what? Here are just 18 of the questions we need to be able to answer:

  1. Is what we are doing in schools working?
  2. Would x number of more days make it even better?
  3. Would more hours in a day help children learn more?
  4. Would disengaged youth, who are challenged by the learning become engaged if only we had x number of more hours or days?
  5. We need more time to do exactly what?
  6. Is the difference between schools in the US and other countries the time?
  7. What are the differences between the US and other countries that may be contributing to their perceived success and our perceived failure?
  8. Do all their students attend the academic programs we require of our students?
  9. Do they value and invest time, energy, and resources in afterschool athletic and other clubs and activities in which students spend valuable time in other than academic experiences?
  10. Are their cultural values about education the same as ours?
  11. Are their schools funded in the same way ours are?
  12. Do they answer to boards made up of community member who may or may not be knowledgeable about best educational practice?
  13. What are their attitudes toward teachers, leaders, and schools?
  14. What type of mobility rates do they have?
  15. Are there achievement gaps within their groups of entering students?
  16. If so, how do they address those gaps?
  17. What type of assessments do they require of their students?
  18. Do they assess their teachers based upon the results?

We’ve got a lot going on that sets us apart from the countries whose schools have longer days or years...and these questions are just the tip of the iceberg.

What Is The Premise Of The Call For More?
Answering these questions before accepting the premise of the call for more school may be the only way we can avoid ending up in yet another mess of failed reform. Here is why. ‘Schools are failing’ is a theme in the press, television, Internet sources, research, and government. Some of those same people think they have the solution and that solution is to take the present construct and do more of it, just for longer periods of time. How can that possibly make sense? Rather than quibble about whether schools are failing or not, lets center the discussion on how, with all the changes in curriculum, standards, mandates, programs, changing student population, certification requirements, assessments, and evaluations, schools have managed to survive all that change and ask: “Can the current structure take more?” Let’s look at the world in which we are all living and wonder about the complexities that exist for students today and after graduation.

How Can More Time To Do What We Are Already Doing Possibly Be The Answer?
The different use of the time has merit, and there are barriers that need to be addressed first. There are required minutes of instruction in different areas from K through 12. Those requirements vary from state to state. But often schedules are built based upon past practice without realizing that there may exist an opportunity for change that is not being used. And there are barriers because of state requirements.

CarnegieFoundation.org found in their study of the re-evaluation of the Carnegie Unit, there are states in which some level of flexibility is emerging. They looked at five categories:

Category 1) Carnegie Unit abolished as primary measure of student learning. Credits must be awarded based on students’ mastery of content and skills rather than on seat-time. (1 state)

Category 2) Districts define credits and may use seat-time OR another measure (e.g. proficiency or competency) to award credit in core courses. (29 states)

Category 3) Districts may apply for special-status or waivers to use measures other than seat-time to award credit for core courses. (4 states)

Category 4) Districts do not have any flexibility and must use time-based credits. (11 states)

Category 5) Districts have some flexibility, but it is limited to special circumstances, such as credit-recovery programs or out-of-school learning, and may require approval from the state. (6 states)

If this conversation about longer school days and years is going to continue (and we think it is) there are a few things we need to do before it becomes another external solution even if imposed with the best of intentions. After answering the questions we raised, and those you can add to the list, consider another read through of Rick Hess’ book, Cage Busting Leadership. In it he demonstrates how important it is to learn how much flexibility we do have within the current structure that remains untapped. Contracts and regulations become habit and sometimes there is room for changes that have been missed.

It Is Time To Change The Design Of Our System
It is important to pay attention to this and all the other change ideas and move forward with our own solutions for flexibility in school design that allows for the inclusion of a goal that narrows our achievement gaps and moves our schools into a new flexible design. There are schools and districts whose leaders have stepped up and stepped out by pushing at those limiting boundaries. Whether it is using technology for online and blended learning, or finding ways to use time in their schools to creatively maximize opportunities for all students, more can be done if the design and limiting mandates can be changed. It is with those forward thinkers we can join to create a louder voice and lead, rather than have imposed, changes in school design. Those from outside of schools are still clamoring for changing the length of school days and years. Perhaps this is an opportunity to change their minds. And if it is so, we need to clarify and unify around a central design idea that allows for the improvements and changes and increase the ability of schools to open the doors to new and different success for all students. Shouldn’t we have an answer for what our schools need to be able to do and what they should look like? New designs for schools may require more time. More may be better if built upon a system designed anew, that better fits this century, and has more flexibility. But based upon our existing design, overall, more is not better.

Hess, Frederick M., Cage Busting Leadership. (2013).Cambridge: Harvard Education Press

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