Standards Opinion

Longer School Day, Longer School Year

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 22, 2013 5 min read
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Colorado, Connecticut, New York, Tennessee, and Massachusetts each have school districts that will be adding days to their school calendars. Arnie Duncan and the National Association for Year Round School have been advocates for this movement. The Wall Street Journal reported that Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, laid out his platform for longer days or years in his State of the State address. It seems to be a movement whose time is coming. Of course, there are those who are not proponents, who argue nostalgically for the value of family summer vacations, who argue the public can’t pay for it with more taxes and who cite research indicating lack of a significant gain in test scores .

School leaders will engage the debate at state levels and at local levels. But, whatever position they personally espouse, it does not take skillful tea leaf reading to see what’s on the horizon. So, now is the time to prepare our schools and avoid a swift legislative action from crashing down around us again. We can get an edge on this movement by getting ready. As leaders we have the responsibility to step up and the first step is asking good questions.

Districts implementing the Common Core have to examine the use of time in the classroom, the way curriculum is mapped, scheduling, the flipping (or not) of the classroom, collaboration, and assessment. Looking at the curriculum differently, moving toward more rigorous academic challenges, increasing the use of informational text, writing from sources, and increasing the use of academic vocabulary are just a few of the of the required shifts. Teachers are working hard to understand these shifts, are learning how to let go of topics that may be no longer necessary, adding new topics, while maintaining the activities that have and always will be important in the overall development of their students. Teachers and leaders have already responded to these shifts with a call for more time in order to meet the requirements, which are to go deeper with rigor and higher expectations for student performance.

Redesigning or adding time requires redesigning instructional methodology - the manner in which students are engaged in this longer time. Students sitting in lectures for 80 minutes instead of 40, or 50 weeks instead of 40, will change little unless instructional methodology changes. We already have concerns about the low levels of student engagement, so adding more time without larger considerations is foolish. We must not allow the “more is better” model to be enforced without being prepared to do it well. How do we do that?

The National Center on Time and Learning is one of the organizations supporting the piloting of longer schooling in five states. Their website reports: “Every child in America deserves an education that prepares them for success in college and careers and a rich, fulfilling life.” We believe that is the fuel that delivers the energy to our teachers and leaders to do the hard work it takes to accomplish the goal. The website goes on say: “Unfortunately, our antiquated school calendar is too limiting to provide millions of children with the breadth and depth of educational experiences they will need to thrive.” Most educators agree that more time would give them the opportunity to bring more students to a higher level of achievement. But time is not the singular factor. With a bit of time for planning and free thinking not constrained by our familiarity with the school day and school year, questions arise which plead for new answers.

  • Does every student need more structured school time? What is the impact of a public policy that answers, no?
  • Is it only for the students who aren’t achieving?
  • Do students who are doing well remain in high school to take even more challenging courses or will we allow them to move on to publically funded higher education?
  • What if, in addition to being our highest achieving students, they are also our best high school athletes and musicians? Whose interest becomes the one public policy will serve?
  • What would a longer school day mean for extracurricular activities? Could a longer school year cause new activities to be created...and funded?
  • Does more time mean more of the same work for students or can we expand our options through the use of technology and virtual worlds?
  • Does lengthening the day and year, bring children and families together as community or separate them earlier defying our democratic principles?
  • What are the unintended consequences? Are they the same for all schools?
  • How will legislatures and governmental agencies deal with the higher teachers’ salaries, renegotiating contracts, and infrastructure questions such as heat and air conditioning?
  • Or, does this belong in the domain of public schools at all? What are the possibilities if the answer is no? What if every child spends a week each summer in the public library, in a recreational center, a community center, a senior center, a music camp, or with technology. Who are the partners with resources to offer and benefits to gain by joining us? Isn’t it everyone?
  • New York City has partnered with Citizen Schools to expand the learning day for middle-school children in low-income communities. This model targets low-income communities and brings in fellows and volunteers to help teach in those extra hours in order to not exhaust faculties further. It is a forward thinking opportunity but, as policy, does it communicate that all children from low- income families are struggling students?

    Do politicians know enough about teaching and learning to make these recommendations? Do the people who advise them know enough? Aren’t they just adding to an already overloaded system? By asking and answering the questions that exist for our communities we can be better prepared. This is the time for school leaders to step into the debate and hold focus forums in their communities. Too often we are in reactive mode. Let’s benefit from some of our best local thinking.

    At the end of the introduction to his 1997 book, Jefferson’s Children, Botstein stated, “As electoral politics become ever more a function of money and more distant from the everyday lives of citizens, new ways must be found to reinvent democratic debate and participation” (p. 12). We cannot sit and wait for the politicians to decide our next steps before we prepare our organizations to meet the changes that come from their legislation. If we wait and react, we will surely do poorly. Since we are already wondering how to do all we need to do in the time that we have, we should prepare to move forward. A first step can be asking the hard questions.

    Research and thoughts for your consideration:
    National Center for Educational Statistics
    Review of Educational Research

    Botstein, Leon (1997). Jefferson’s Children. New York: Doubleday

    Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.