The Highs and Lows of Increasing Kids’ Time in School

Published July 16, 2014

As most kids head back to school this August, they may find others have never left. More children are in school year-round, or before- and after-hours, or get shorter summer breaks. Forty-nine states include extended learning time in their education laws, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Typically, these are after-school, extra tutoring, or otherwise remedial programs for students who are behind their peers.

In 2013, 33 states considered bills related to extended learning time (ELT), according to the Center for American Progress (CAP), a think tank based in Washington DC.

President Obama has advocated for more classroom time. Low-performing schools looking to receive federal school improvement grants must, according to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, feature “increased learning time.”

Focus on Low-Achieving Students
NCSL’s survey of the research on more class time finds no conclusive proof it’s effective overall. Sometimes it improves student achievement, sometimes it does not. The National Center on Time & Learning, a group that advocates for more school time, surveyed 250 ELT schools and found that nine out of 10 considered increased time necessary for “meeting their educational goals.”

Economist Caroline Hoxby studied New York charter schools and found that charters were far more effective than traditional schools in closing achievement gaps between rich and poor students, and “the strongest predictor of high student performance among charter schools was a longer school year,” a CAP report notes.

Except for schools where many students’ native language is not English, Tina Bruno, executive director of The Coalition for a Traditional School Calendar, thinks increased time in the classroom is a bad idea.

Bruno first experienced year-round schooling about 18 years ago, when a company she worked for tasked her with runing an adopt-a-school program for a very low-performing school. When she arrived, teachers told her the school was going to change to a year-round calendar, with the goal, among others, of reducing summer learning loss.

Kids Exhausted
At first, Bruno was excited and hopeful, she said. The school adopted a nine weeks on, three weeks off schedule, with no extended summer break. But the year turned into a tug-of-war with Bruno and the teachers on one side, and the students on the other.

For one, students did not attend inter-sessions, extra classes many year-round schools institute for the weeks off. As a result, the teachers found that they spent each first week back in review.

The shorter summer break meant that teachers trying to get their master’s degrees would have to do so during school evenings, cutting into class prep time. And students were less able to participate in summer programs and camps. The school also saw a dramatic rise in electricity costs, since they were cooling the school during the hottest part of the year.

Finally, Bruno noticed a drop in students’ excitement for returning to school.

“With the shorter breaks, kids never had a chance to get bored, and so the grass was not greener in the schoolyard,” she said. “They grumbled the whole time.”

Sometimes It Works
Some school calendars come halfway. Chandler Unified School District operates on a semi-year-round schedule—nine weeks on, followed by two off, with a six-week summer break—and it is one of the highest-performing districts in Arizona. Last year, Chandler was the only district in Arizona with multiple high schools that received an A letter grade from the state.

Basha High School is one of them. Basha, along with the rest of the district, does not have inter-sessions because administrators quickly found they weren’t well-attended. Advanced Placement study sessions held during school off weeks, however, are very well-attended, said Basha Principal Ken James.

In 2012, nine schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district of North Carolina attempted to see if they could mimic the success schools like Basha have enjoyed.

In Project Lift, Charlotte schools receive funding from local businesses and philanthropies for improvement. The project focuses on increased time, teaching talent, access to technology, and community and parent engagement.

According to Susan Norwood, the executive director of the project, unlike the aforementioned examples, the targeted schools’ inter-sessions were well-attended (up to 85 percent).

“The feedback from families and staff has been overwhelmingly positive,” Norwood said.

Norwood acknowledged, though, that the early results are inconclusive, since the schools are only entering their second year with the project.

‘Unimaginably Horrible Idea’
Anthony Esolen, a professor of English literature and western civilization at Providence College and the author of several books, including How to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, calls year-round schooling an “unimaginably horrible idea.”

He disagrees fundamentally with extending kids’ time in school, for two basic reasons. One, as a teacher, he sees lots of problems with America’s schools that he believes have nothing to do with duration. Esolen thinks lengthening the school year, or even spacing it out so as to shorten summer break, won’t fix a thing.

“If I’ve got a guy that I’ve hired to do plumbing, and my pipes still leak, I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, maybe I should pay him twice as much and have him work twice as long,'” Esolen said.

Two, Esolen said time away from school gives children the opportunity to learn how to do things they can’t in school, and to enjoy just being kids.

“They should have lives outside of the institution,” Esolen said.

Image by Adrian Sampson.