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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.”

However, this is not to suggest that a lengthened school year or even school day should be dismissed out of hand with respect to all groups. This is where a concept of differential day length can be implemented with respect to those lagging in academic achievement. That is, although the ideal school day would appear to be somewhere between 6.2 to 6.5 hours daily, the day could be extended for those slower in either math or literacy. Thus, although they may be getting the requisite 6.2-6.5 hours of normal instruction, extending their day out to 7 or 7.5 hours (an extra half to full hour) may prove beneficial. Some would argue that this would be a costly endeavor since it would require more teachers working longer hours. Not necessarily! Most major school districts- those with 3,000 or more students and most likely to have lagging students- hire an array of specialists in literacy and math to work with these low performing students during the school day. Instead of arriving at, for example, 8:15 a.m. and then sitting around doing nothing until 9:30 but leaving at 3:15 with the rest of staff, they could be brought in later (perhaps 9:30) and kept later. In this way, they can do their normal routines until 3:00, then take over smaller, age-specific groups (not necessarily grade-specific) after 3:00. For example, a first grader having trouble in math is most likely similar to a second grader having difficulty in math. In fact, the second grader is probably having trouble because they barely passed first grade math and needs remediation in that area. In effect, you would bringing up the second grader’s performance to second grade levels by reinforcing first grade concepts while simultaneously helping the struggling first grader. Likewise, the academic enrichment summer school I alluded to earlier can be used in this way. A teacher can identify the students who may have barely passed first grade math or any other subject and an academic enrichment summer session (in effect, a differential extension of the school year) could be of benefit.

Of course, all of this comes down the ultimate quality of the education received in the first place. Having the highest paid teachers does not translate into academic achievement. Nor does class size, per pupil spending formulas, teacher to student ratios, the length of the school year or school day in addition to a host of other suggestions. None of these are anything without qualified and quality teachers coupled with an academically rigorous curriculum, clear and established standards, and transparent accountability. “Qualified” and “quality” are two different things to liberals and conservatives. To hear the NEA speak, simply having a teacher certification confers the moniker “qualified” upon a teacher. By extension, they are “professionals” not being paid a “professional salary.” To the conservative, teacher certification is but one parameter to assess whether the person is qualified. Yet, there may be other metrics and the most important is student academic achievement. A “qualified” teacher with a PhD in Education may be the worst math “teacher” in the world. Conversely, a retired accountant without a teacher certification may be the best math teacher in the world. Quality, on the other hand, has less to do with the person doing the teaching than with the subject matter taught, what is to be learned at certain levels, and how well that is achieved. It is not only curriculum, but everything that enhances that curriculum and the teaching of that subject matter. Unfortunately, the Obama solution- the Race to the Top program- tries to instill on states a national standard that may simply not be possible. It is the necessary by-product of the federal government’s intrusion into K-12 education. No one denies that American educational performance needs revamping. But years and years and billions of dollars of “assistance” from the federal government has not achieved such. As was seen with NCLB, the standards in some states under the RTTT program will be unconsciously lowered while in others they will be elevated under threat of losing federal dollars. Not too many conservatives are against accountability in education. The only question is “accountable to whom?”

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