Extended School Day and Year Are Under Review Across the Country

Published February 1, 2008

Poor academic achievement of American K-12 students in comparison to other industrialized nations has led state departments of education, local school districts, and various groups supporting public schools to take a close look at extending the school day and/or the school year in order to boost student achievement.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which has revealed woeful student achievement inadequacies nationwide, particularly in urban school districts, is contributing to this trend.

On average, U.S. students go to school 6.5 hours a day, 180 days a year–fewer than in many other industrialized countries, according to Education Sector, a Washington DC-based think tank.

In Germany, for example, some schools in year-round programs can run up to 240 instructional days per year. Students in Japan are required to go to school 240 days per year, and students in Singapore attend year-round schools for 280 days per year.

Status Quo Support

It is true the average U.S. school year has increased over the long haul. According to the 1872 report of the U.S. Commissioner of Education, the school year in various states ranged from five months and 15 days in Virginia to eight months and 12.5 days in Connecticut. But have the increases over the decades been enough?

According to the National Center on Time & Learning (NCTL), a public school advocacy group launched in October 2007, the answer is no. NCTL claims “an extended school day and school year will ensure that all children receive a rigorous and well-rounded education.”

NCTL works with both the Center for American Progress and Strong American Schools, which advocate for government schools. Other groups pressing to retain the status quo, including the National Education Association, Public Education Network, and National Association of Secondary School Principals, have given NCTL statements of support.

An important contention of these groups is that the current U.S. school year allows students to forget over the summer break much of what was learned during the previous school year. They also maintain the 180-day school year was designed for an agrarian calendar so children could provide help on farms during the growing and harvesting seasons. With that need long gone, NCTL and its supporters claim it’s time to lengthen the school year in order to meet today’s domestic needs and competition from abroad.

Expensive Idea

Not everybody agrees extending the school day and/or year is the best way–or even a good way–to improve education.

When considering such extensions, the first unavoidable factor to confront is cost. Every hour and every day added to the school calendar incur a significant expense above and beyond existing budgets.

For example, according to a study by the Education Commission of the States, one additional day of school in California (2005-06) would cost $292,825,000. For one more day in New York, the cost would be $211,967,000, while an extra day in North Dakota would cost $4,356,000. Before jumping to the conclusion that extending school time is a good idea, states need to decide if such a strategy is the best use of funds.

In addition, extending the school year and/or day may be good for some students, but not necessarily for others. According to a 1989 study by University of Georgia education professor Kenneth Tanner, the number of dropouts, especially among Hispanics and African-Americans, increased when the school year was lengthened.

Better Structure

While it is true European nations average 195 days of school and East Asian countries 208 days a year, their superior educational achievement compared to the United States may not be due to time in school. According to researcher Jorn-Steffen Pischke of the London School of Economics, the difference may be that education is stressed heavily in these societies–a virtue that is unfortunately missing in many American urban school districts.

A study by the National Education Commission on Time and Learning suggests spending more time in class may not be the best way to improve achievement. It recommends reformers “reinvent schools around learning, not time.”

Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector, generally agrees.

“Research reveals a complicated relationship between time and learning and suggests that improving the quality of instructional time is at least as important as increasing the quantity of time in school,” Silva noted in a January 2007 study.

An October 2007 report by the John Locke Foundation’s Terry Stoops offers additional evidence that simply adding hours to the school calendar does not increase academic performance.

Individual Differences

The drive for extending the school year and/or school day appears to be just another one-size-fits-all strategy of the education establishment to entrench itself further.

Although increasing time in the classroom might be good for some students, it will not help others. It may even hurt some.

Every child has different learning patterns, and until parents are free to choose what is best educationally for their children, the vast learning potential of America’s children will continue to be stifled.

Richard G. Neal ([email protected]) writes from North Carolina.

For more information …

National Center on Time & Learning: http://www.timeandlearning.org

“Cost Per Day for Extended School Year,” by Stephanie Fonda, Education Commission of the States, January 2007: http://www.heartland.org/article.cfm?artId=22598

“The Impact of Length of the School Year on Student Performance and Earnings: Evidence from German Short School Years,” by Jorn-Steffen Pischke, London School of Economics, September 2002: http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1468-0297.2007.02080.x

“Prisoners of Time,” Report of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, April 1994: http://www.ed.gov/pubs/PrisonersOfTime/index.html

“On the Clock: Rethinking the Way Schools Use Time,” by Elena Silva, Education Sector, January 22, 2007: http://www.heartland.org/article.cfm?artId=22601

“Better Instruction, Not More Time,” by Terry Stoops, John Locke Foundation, August 1, 2007: http://www.heartland.org/article.cfm?artId=22600

“Length of the School Year,” by Kenneth Tanner, Journal of Research and Development in Education, Vol. 22, No. 2:http://sitemaker.umich.edu?grifka.356/length_of_school_year