There is no institutional structure that has historically resisted (and continues to resist) change more than the school schedule.
As America commemorated the 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk last year, most educators celebrated the consensus that has developed around standards-based reform and the paradigm shift within the education system. Efficacy is determined no longer through inputs—funding, class time, course offerings, and the like—but instead by outcomes, or measuring how much and how well students learn. Yet amid all the congratulatory talk about the effort put into boosting educational content and the massive overhaul of education generated by national and state reform laws, there is still an unmistakable undercurrent of frustration, for progress toward the goal of having all students achieve to high standards has been slow and uneven.
Most have concluded that the reason for this sluggish improvement reduces to a very simple matter. Having in place high standards and a system to hold students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable to these standards is necessary, but insufficient. Schools must also change the basic conditions in which teaching and learning take place, so that they align to the new focus on learning outcomes. Even with increases in state and federal funding, however, these conditions have, in large part, not changed. We have created a learning system where student proficiency is paramount, but children’s acquisition of skills and knowledge still takes place within a school system that too often places priority on the preservation of institutional practices and structures, rather than their transformation.
There is no institutional structure that has historically resisted (and continues to resist) change more than the school schedule. The conventional school year of 180 six-hour days with a long summer vacation that exists today was developed chiefly to accommodate the labor needs of 19th-century farmers. Yet, at the close of 2004, this schedule is still the norm. With the advent of high education standards, modern students are expected to know and do so much more than previous generations, yet, stunningly, they are required to achieve these objectives in the same allotted time. We would never expect a long-distance runner to complete a 10-kilometer race in the same time he or she runs a 5-kilometer one, but today’s students have essentially been challenged to do just that. This discrepancy is why, at the same time the authors of A Nation at Risk urged the country to raise standards and install a system of accountability, they also insisted that school systems devote “significantly more time to learning the New Basics … [by requiring] more effective use of the existing school day, a longer school day, or a lengthened school year.”
Ten years ago, this push to increase learning time became even more urgent with the publication of the report from the National Education Commission on Time and Learning. This commission argued forcefully that time acted as a straitjacket on the education system.“By relying on time as the metric for school organization and curriculum,” the commission reasoned, “the boundaries of student growth are defined by schedules for bells, buses, and vacations instead of standards for students and learning. In the school of the future, learning—in the form of high, measurable standards of student performance—must become the fixed goal. Time must become an adjustable resource.”
Despite the elegant rhetoric, however, the school schedules of a vast majority of American districts haven’t changed a whit. So, unlike calls for higher standards, which have galvanized educators and policymakers to action, the appeal for lengthening the school day and year to facilitate the reaching of those standards falls silently into the well of wishful thinking.
To help reverse this phenomenon, our organization, together with many other experts in education and child development, recently submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in the Hancock v. Driscoll school financing case, arguing that the state’s constitutional duty to provide an education to children cannot be adequately met within the current school schedule. Only by increasing learning time will all schoolchildren achieve to the standards our state has set. And what is true in Massachusetts is true everywhere. We are hopeful that the court considers our arguments, but we also know that the institutional inertia that has cemented our school schedule in place is powerful.
In public schools, restructuring the number of school hours and days seems impossible because of entrenched obstacles that include money, staffing, and parental resistance.
Before considering the forces that seem to doom the idea of increasing the school schedule from the start, however, let us first ponder the benefits of more school time.
With longer days and, by extension, longer class periods, students could spend more “time on task.” More time on task usually translates into higher performance.
Teachers could delve more deeply into subject matter without being pressed by the clock to squeeze as much content as possible into a single lesson. Cognitive science tells us that learning tends to “stick” when students encounter material in a variety of contexts, and such contextual variety is more likely to occur when there is time to engage in many separate, but mutually reinforcing, activities. For example:
• Schools could build in protected time for teachers to plan and participate in on-site professional development together, which typically has substantial benefits for teaching.
• More subjects can be included in the school day. The new mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, reports some research, have caused American education to narrow. Schools focus teaching on tested subjects like English and math, while sacrificing nontested subjects like art, music, or social science. More time would bring back these “peripheral” subjects.
• Longer days and years would allow for greater interaction between teacher and student, thus strengthening the teacher-child relationship, which stands at the core of learning.
With such powerful benefits, a growing number of charter schools and other innovative educational models have significantly expanded their day and year. A survey of the charter schools in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Illinois, for instance, found that 74 percent operate for at least 15 percent more time than the conventional school schedule. The renowned KIPP Academies of Houston, New York, and now Massachusetts and the privately managed Edison and Mosaica schools all operate on substantially longer days and years. Very simply, these schools have increased learning time because they know that today’s students cannot reach high standards without more time in school than the traditional day and year provide.
But in public schools, restructuring the number of school hours and days seems impossible because of entrenched obstacles that include money, staffing, and, in some cases, parental resistance. For each of these obstacles, however, there may be ready-made solutions. Consider staffing, where asking teachers to put in more hours may be met with considerable resistance from an already overburdened workforce. Yet, a longer school day might not necessarily mean more work hours for teachers. For starters, schedules might be staggered, such that some teachers would work the traditional 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. day, but others might not come to school until noon and then work until 6 p.m. In addition, some teaching might be conducted by community members with particular expertise or interests, much like after-school enrichment programs operate now. Of course, in many cases, these changes would require union negotiations.
Unlike calls for higher standards, which have galvanized educators and policymakers to action, the appeal for lengthening the school day and year to facilitate the reaching of those standards falls silently into the well of wishful thinking.
The second obstacle of money is considerable, for there is no denying that longer school time costs more. (Our preliminary research shows that a longer school day can cost up to 20 percent more.) One fairly straightforward solution could be to pilot a shifting of dollars currently spent on after-school programs—through income-eligible child-care vouchers and the like—to the schools. After all, with a longer school day, children would no longer need to attend after-school programs as they are now constituted (voluntary and space-limited), but they could instead be wrapped into the school day and be available to all children. Moreover, if schools are innovative in their faculty scheduling, extended-day schools need not cost significantly more.
The final misgiving about school time being expanded often comes from parents: More time in school would come at the expense of children’s other activities. This objection usually assumes, however, that a longer school day and year would mean more classroom time as it is traditionally imagined—children sitting in rows listening quietly to a teacher. What if the longer time allowed teachers to become more creative with their teaching than a crammed, 40- to 50-minute period permits? Engaging students in hands-on learning activities is a powerful teaching strategy and builds a love of learning. Or, schools could use the extra time to involve children in enrichment activities (arts and sports, for example) that are specifically designed to enhance academics.
Finally, consider the alternative for too many children in America, especially in poorer districts. For them, the end of the school day and year simply means the start to an unproductive, unchallenging (not to mention dangerous) time. These children’s lives would almost certainly be improved if they were guaranteed to be occupied in enriching learning experiences in school during the afternoon, instead of in unstructured activities.
The bottom line is that reforming the old system of school scheduling does not mean simply adding more time. It also means taking advantage of what research says is necessary for quality teaching and professional development. Doing this will take great resolve, significant funding, and much flexibility and creativity, but logic dictates the need, and evidence demonstrates the impact.
We will learn soon if the Massachusetts supreme court agrees, but we believe that the time for more learning time has most certainly arrived.
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 2004 edition of Education Week as Rethinking Time