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Why Longer School Days Work for Families

By Rhonda Present — October 04, 2011 3 min read
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As school districts across the nation have scaled back instructional hours and moved to four-day weeks to balance their budgets, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is forging ahead with his push for a longer school day and year. And, though his plan is stirring controversy on many fronts, if implemented well, it stands to benefit students and another group largely missing from the discussion: their families.

Things have changed a lot in the homes of American schoolchildren over the past 50 years or so. There are more two-income households, more single parents raising families, and more mothers in the paid labor force. The days of June Cleaver waiting to greet the school bus each afternoon with a plate of warm cookies and a nice, cold glass of milk are pretty much over, assuming they ever existed at all.

But you wouldn’t know it by taking a glance at a typical school calendar.

Once you subtract all the holidays, teacher in-service days, and winter, spring, and summer breaks, you are left with about 180 days, which is the average school year in the United States. Compare that to 245 days, which is a quick back-of-the-envelope approximation of the average number of days a mom or dad has to work in a year (five days a week times 52 weeks, minus 15 holiday and vacation days), and you don’t have to be a 2nd grade math whiz to see we’ve got a problem.

And it’s one that is taking a tremendous, albeit quiet, toll on working parents like the mom I met recently at a fundraising training session in Chicago.

The length of the school year has remained relatively stagnant, and by failing to keep pace, it is undermining our children's education."

She had arrived late to the session, which was set to begin at 10 o’clock in the morning, and after we were introduced she explained why. With school out for the summer, she had enrolled both her children in day camp. Because the camp didn’t start until 9:30 a.m., she had orchestrated an elaborate carpooling scheme with other parents. While it was someone else’s turn to drive that particular morning, she wanted to make sure the girls got off safely. So she waited until their ride arrived before embarking on her commute.

As she recounted the story (with her supervisor looking on), she appeared exhausted and had a very worried look on her face. Having missed many early-morning business meetings because my daughter didn’t start school until 8, I could relate all too well to the stress I knew she must have been feeling. Especially in these tough economic times, showing up late or having to tell your boss that you can’t come in at all because your children are out of school is something every working parent dreads even if they have the family-friendliest of employers.

Yet, in all the discussions about why we need to lengthen the school year, closing the gap between school schedules and the employment realities of 21st-century families is rarely, if ever, mentioned. Dare one raise the issue, and we are swiftly reminded that schools are not day-care centers and that teachers are there to teach, not baby-sit, our children.

I couldn’t agree more. Education is—and should be—schools’ first order of business.

However, the inextricable link between school schedules and family economic needs is firmly rooted in history. And, as social scientist Jody Heymann pointed out in her 2002 article “Can Working Families Ever Win?,” it was during the period of rapid industrialization from 1870 to 1930 that the American school year experienced its most dramatic growth—a 30 percent increase from 132 to 173 days.

Since then, the length of the school year has remained relatively stagnant, and its failure to keep pace is undermining our children’s education. Not only are they losing ground in terms of having sufficient time to master the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the global economy, but the inadequate calendar is also placing undue stress on parents, which can impede their children’s ability to learn.

Countless studies have shown that children whose families are experiencing financial hardship are more likely to struggle academically. And, even if job loss hasn’t hit home, just knowing it’s a real possibility is negatively affecting student achievement, according to a June 2011 paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, titled “Children Left Behind: The Effects of Statewide Job Loss on Student Achievement.”

Creating a school calendar more in sync with the needs of today’s working families would not replace the continued need for more supportive employer policies or high-quality, affordable child care. But it would go a long way toward helping those of us who need to earn a living in order to ensure that our children come to school ready to learn and that their classrooms are well stocked with the necessary supplies.

A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 2011 edition of Education Week as Why Longer School Days Work for Families


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