A Longer School Day or a Better School Day?

Time is a valuable thing.  I often wish I had more of it.  I can pretty much say with confidence that you, Reader, probably wish you had some more too.

I don’t like to waste people’s time.  I don’t believe that any of us who engage in something we love want to either.  When I form my lessons, teach a classroom full of high school students, or present information to my colleagues, I don’t want others to wish they were somewhere else.  Learning is at its best when students are engaged.  Engagement can look like a variety of things: a student hard at work on his or her own composition, a thoughtful classroom discussion about ethics, participation in the school science fair, or designing an exercise regimen in P.E.

Teachers do not believe that what we teach is a waste of time.  We can engage students easily when things are important to us.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel campaigned on a  promise to deliver a longer school day and school year in Chicago.  This has proven to be overwhelmingly popular among non-educators, and isn’t even that un-popular with some teachers. Obviously, students aren’t crazy about it, but we’ll get to that later.

More time in the school has the potential to look like a lot of things.  Emily at RosieSays illustrates different ideas of what “57 more hours” each school year could look like and breaks out a meaningful number: 10 extra days of school a year.  Mayor Emanuel is envisioning more time for math.  I would like more time for civics, art, and health education.

But like the Academy Awards or tapeworms, “longer isn’t necessarily better.”  After a while, things deteriorate and can even become painful.  School is no exception.  When we start to solve schooling issues in Chicago from the position of lengthening the school day, we will create more problems than solutions because that time and money will have to be cut from something else.

By extending the school day length CPS will need to cut after-school programs, sports and clubs, and make-up credits (night school). Graduation rates will plummet (further) when we see that kids who can’t make up classes they failed the first time have no second chance to learn.

Outside of the classroom, students’ lives will deteriorate: students will need to quit their after-school jobs. They will get home much later in the evening.  The vast majority of Chicago students use public transportation to get to school. Many already start and end their day away from home without sunlight.  They will spend less time with their families, which we know won’t help a student to succeed in school.

School reform needs to start from the position of changing what we are already doing in schools with the hours that we are there.  When students are spending hours each month prepping for and taking tests that neither inform instruction nor ensure meaningful outcomes, then we are wasting our time and their time.

We don’t need a longer school day, we need a “Better School Day” replete with study hall, recess, fully resourced classrooms, and schools that don’t resemble prisons.  We need healthy meals and physical education that burns off enough of students’ energy to help them focus on writing and reading when they sit still.  We need theatre, music, and arts education so students have something to write and read about.  We need civic education to teach students how  to leverage power in the world, especially as they become adults.

I think if we saw these changes, we might see that 6 and a half hours each day (eight, when we include homework and studying) would be well-spent, resulting in young people ready for society by the time they graduate.

Education reform must begin and end with what and why we are teaching and learning.  Those who want to legislate longer school days without considering the logistics will realize the hard way that they are creating more problems, and wasting everyone’s time.

It leaves me wondering if youth will still be wasted on the young.

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3 responses to “A Longer School Day or a Better School Day?

  1. Excellent and thought provoking post: Interestingly enough, I just finished a chapter in “Wasting Minds-Why our education system is failing and what we can do about it” by Ronald Wolk on this particular topic. Wolk states, “to assume that students will learn more in schools if only they spend more time there is nonsense.” He goes on to say, “a case for a longer school day or year may be made if time is used more effectively.” I am extremely interested in this concept and agree with you completely that we need more civics, art, health and PE. I also am concerned that the inequalities that exist when students go home may be addressed with adding highly structured time to the day. MA has had success in piloting a longer day program (8 hrs. week)- check out http://www.mass2020.org.

    What if we could slow the pace of school down, have students complete all homework at school, add elective courses to keep kids interested in school and provide additional support for kids that need it. If we can accomplish all this by adding an hour or two a day I am for it. I will continue to research the pro’s and con’s of this matter and appreciate your excellent blog post.

  2. Well written.
    The missed after school opportunities due to a longer day will be especially detrimental at the high school level when students use those activities to get scholarships to college, help pay their bills, etc.

    I would also highlight that while our students may not be excelling in reading or math, the fact that they are getting little to no social studies and science at the elementary level due to the test craze is making it impossible for them to suceed in their high school courses (or on their standardized exams). The more time that is spent on test prep and math/reading ‘skills’, the more apparent it becomes that there are some skills that cannot be taught in a vacuum of content: inference, for example, which requires prior knowledge in multiple subjects.

    This is a topic that needs to be discussed, not thrown around as the next silver bullet.

  3. The missed opportunity in districts or schools where the longer school day is being considered is the fact that the needs of the students must be paramount. Many of the propositions that I have seen regarding extended days is written as an indictment of the teacher or the profession in general. The longer day is essentially inflicted upon the teachers and students alike in some sadistic effort to squeeze knowledge out of them and into the classroom where it will then be absorbed–soylent green learning.

    Compare this type of effort to more successful schools and you will not see anything similar. You may even see less class time and less direct instruction.

    The longer school day will become an embraceable concept when it first benefits the community it intends to serve. The extended day that provides flexibility to its students and staff rather than rigidity will thrive. Consider the 12 hour school day where students and teachers could ‘do the time’ as they see fit. Where teachers and students could create community and develop solutions to needs while also meeting other interests and obligations through the day.

    We cannot continue to make attempts to mediate the constraints and shortcomings of a failing system. Within the genuine hard boundaries, we must create something new.

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