# Perspectives in Education- Part 15: Schools Days and Years

## Does the Length of the School Day or Year Really Matter?

Generally speaking, the school year lasts 180 days spread over 10 months and the average length of a school day is 6.5 hours. Some states vary in both and some states even leave it up to the individual school districts to determine the length of the school year although they usually end up around 180 days regardless. The spread over months is also variable as some districts or states vary the number of recognized holidays. Speaking only for the school district in which I teach, besides the usual Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter, time off is given for Jewish holidays and Muslim holidays. I never knew what Eid was until I started working there. Incidentally, the Easter break is now called Spring break and Christmas vacation is now called Winter break (my school still calls it by its proper name). Additionally, schools are off some time in November for the annual NJEA teacher’s convention.

All this begs the question whether the length of the school day or the school year actually increases academic performance. Here, many conservatives point to our foreign counterparts as this being a reason for their academic “superiority” over American students. Many foreign countries have both longer school days and school years. Some have year-round school. Others, although the school day may be comparable, include less emphasis in certain areas and greater emphasis in science and mathematics. In fact, math is one area where American students lag behind their foreign counterparts to a great degree. Literacy results could be understood since these foreign countries are more ethnically and linguistically homogeneous than the United States. It is certainly easier to teach in Spanish in Mexico where your entire class is Spanish-speaking rather than the United States where a class can be 60% English-speaking, 30% Spanish and 10% Hindi or Bengali (or other Asian languages).

So, lets just look at the United States and math performance. On average, 88% of 8th grade American math students receive about 3 hours of instruction per week. Dividing the states into three broad groups- those greater than the national average, those at the national average and those below the national average- we can then compare the performance of those states against a standard- the 8th grade math portion of the NEAP. Twenty-four of 51 states (DC is included) exceed the national average. In fact, 92.5% of these students receive at least 3 hours of math instruction per week. The twelve average states average about the national norm- 88.3 of all students while the 14 below-average states average 82.6% of all students. In terms of the 8th grade NEAP math scores, the average states absolutely equal the above average states with a math score of 264. The below average states have average math scores of 262.5, or a mere 0.5% below the scores of the other groups. Hence, the number of hours of instruction in math and, by extension, the length of the school day, seems to make very little, if any, improvements in academic performance. Just as more money spent on education makes intuitive sense to the liberal, longer school days and school years make intuitive sense to conservatives. Both would be wrong.

Obviously with an increased school year comes the demand for more teachers, or more accurately, more demands from the existing teachers. Because a state may propose expanding the school year from 180 to 185 days, teachers often demand additional compensation for those five extra days. Take, for example, my school district which has a 180-day year. However, they have a voluntary summer school session that begins in and runs through the month of July. This program is geared towards academic enrichment and encouraged for those students on the cusp between a “D” and a “C,” or any other student who wants to participate. I am not quite sure of the worthiness of the program or if participants actually show improvements in the short or long term. But, I do know that the competition for these teaching positions in this session- which are compensated- is, to say the least, cut throat. While many a teacher is looking forward to June and the end of school, they are simultaneously fighting one another for an extra month of compensation. Extending the school year would simply increase the cost of education across the board.

Look to the example in California with their annual budget shortfalls. One solution is to simply cut the school year. For every day cut, the state saves \$1 billion in that state alone. That is one less day teachers and staff need to be paid, lights have to be turned on, computers have to run, rooms need to be cleaned and lunches need to be served. But, is this worth the savings if students are being short-changed even a mediocre education? Some would state that it is since the schools, as a whole, are not producing academically performing students anyway. This is defeatism from the start. But then using that same logic, one cannot simultaneously argue that a longer school year or school day is the answer to academic achievement in this country.

Leaving aside the fiscal issues involved, some states have actually experimented with lengthening the school day. The national average school day is 6.5 hours. Twenty states have school day lengths exceeding the national average significantly with their average school day being 6.9 hours while seven states have shortened the lengths of their school days averaging 6.2 hours. The remaining states- 24 in all- average 6.55 hours. Looking at academic performance as measured by the NEAP at the 4th and 8th grade levels, the states with the longest school days score 6.1 points LOWER than the average states. In fact, they are 5.1 points lower than the states that have shortened their school days. Comparing the average states against the states with shortened hours, academic achievement is about even, differing by about one point in favor of the average states. The same trends hold true for high schools. Lengthening the school day had no effect on increasing graduation rates, SAT scores, or most other metrics.

Again, this is the quality versus quantity conundrum with this time conservatives falling on the side of the quantity equation. There may very well be some critical mass amount of time that must be first broken through, but if these findings mean anything, they indicate that as the length of the school day increases, academic performance, as measured by standardized tests, decreases. Again, intuition may suggest that a longer school day equals greater academic achievement, but knee-jerk conservative assumptions are as undesirable as liberal knee-jerk assumptions. In fact, one can argue they are “anti-conservative.”