Time, Time, Do They Really Need More Time?

clockIn preparation of a new school year which is fast approaching, and along with that comes new legislative sessions with gubernatorial education agendas I thought I’d address the issue of time.

Do public schools really need more time with our kids?  Should the state mandate that for local school districts (and by default public school parents)?  Worse yet should the federal government?

To answer I’d say no, no and no.

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad would like more time.  It was being discussed last December.  There are options that a task force Governor Branstad is putting together will consider such as:

  • Extending the school year by at least 10 days.
  • Lengthening school days.
  • Requiring struggling students to attend Saturday or summer classes.

I had a friend email me meeting minutes from back in 2009 from an education roundtable with Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.  At that meeting Indiana Superintendent of Public Education Tony Bennett signing the praises of Education Secretary Arne Duncan said we should foist on local schools (my words) longer school days and longer school years.  He obviously likes Secretary Duncan’s love of national standards as well:

We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed for the time, when America was a nation of farmers, who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of the day. This calendar once made sense, but now it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. The challenges of the new century demand more time in the classroom. Secretary Duncan said he is for everything that kids hate. I am for those same things: longer school days, more days of the school week, and longer school years. We can’t find research that says that less is better for our children. We should adopt Secretary Duncan’s position, and to be for all that kids don’t want.

Except we can’t really can’t document that more is better for our kids.  Considering Iowa’s mandatory 5.5 hour school days (which most schools go beyond), I asked back in December and still ask today:

  • Does anyone really believe you are going to keep the attention of an early elementary student longer than 6.5 hours?
  • This would increase school budgets, and is that something taxpayers can really afford?
  • Regarding more instructional time, how much time in the classroom is really just spent on busy work?  From my personal interaction with public schools and from experience – a lot.
  • I know one of the arguments in favor is that often times parents are still at work when their kids are released from school, but what about those who aren’t?
  • What about students in rural school districts who already spend an insane amount of time on the school bus do we really want to lengthen their day?
  • Considering how much older students, on average, are involved in extracurricular activities do we really want to take more time away from families (not to mention the ungodly amount of homework they often have to do)?

The Eagle Forum back in 2009 when President Obama and Secretary Duncan started to advocate for more time for public instruction wrote that assumptions made by educrats about more time being better simply isn’t backed up by fact:

In fact, children in the Asian nations with outstanding performance on international math and science tests do not spend more hours in school than American children. American children spend 1,146 instructional hours per year in school, on average. Children in Singapore, usually the highest-performing nation in mathematics, spend just 903 instructional hours per year. Instructional hours in other top-performing nations are also lower than in the U.S.: 1,050 in Taiwan, 1,005 in Japan, and 1,013 in Hong Kong.

Children in Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong do show up for more school days than children in the U.S., although those days are shorter. American public schools in most states spend a minimum of 180 days in school, while the school year in the other three nations runs between 190 and 201 days.

The performance of students in nations outside of Asia also fails to demonstrate a simple correlation between time spent in school and learning. Italian children spend more time in school than American children, yet fare worse on math assessments. Finland, where students spend just 861 hours a year in school, placed first on one of the other international tests.

Some educrats, especially Republican ones, will point to charter schools, the Eagle Forum in that same article wrote:

Some American school districts and some charter schools have already experimented with lengthening the school day and year. The KIPP charter school network of 82 public charter schools observes a 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. school day, more than three hours longer than the average. These schools also require students’ attendance every other Saturday, and for three extra weeks during the summer. Advocates of the longer school day point out that KIPP students perform better than the averages for their school districts on standardized tests; but opponents add that the difference is actually quite small, and represents a surprisingly low yield from what amounts to more than a 50% increase in the hours students spend in school. It is also difficult to disentangle the results of the extra instructional hours from other factors at play in KIPP schools. Many charter schools with average school days and years also outperform other schools in their districts.

Regarding our “outdated calendar” we’ve kept this calendar way beyond our our agrarian roots.  So it is not merely a relic of that time.  They cite Peter Berger from an article that appeared in Education Week back in November of 2009.  In it he said something that strikes to the heart of the matter, “Giving children the summer away from school isn’t a waste of their time. Unless we’re saying that being home is a waste of their time.”

I believe most proponents of longer school days and years do believe that.  Instead of longer school days and years, Berger notes, a good practical step should be reducing truancy which is prominent in high poverty areas (which is where you’ll find most of our failing schools).  Solve that problem and you may find some other issues will clear up as well.  Leave decisions of having a longer school days and/or school years up to
parents and their elected school boards.

Update: Jason Glass, the Director of the Iowa Department of Education, contacted me to say I mischaracterized his position on a longer school day.  I had originally written that he was in favor of it, along with Governor Branstad, and have made a correction.  I apologize for my error.