The Question of the Value of an Extended School Calendar

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Introduction

Many attempts are being made at reforming education, encouraging equal access, and attempting to lift the persistent achievement gap. The question of the value of extending the school day has no comprehensive data for or against it. However, the context surrounding the debate of children’s needs (sleep, family, structure mixed with play, etc.) do not support the extended school year program. Many educators and policy makers agree that increased behavioral problems and violence in schools, as well as persistent gaps in achievement, are strongly related to school being treated as daycare, and reinforce the need for children to be raised by their parents and not by teachers and babysitters. 

Possibilities

In 2013 an experiment was created in select American schools to investigate the question if extended school hours can help close the achievement gap through fostering greater focus through time. At this time, “11 school districts across five states — Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee — will be extending their class time learning by at least 300 hours” (Chen). By contrast, the standard school calendar entails, “11 school districts across five states — Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee — will be extending their class time learning by at least 300 hours” (Chen). Prior to this experiment the research on this issue has been mixed and inconclusive. 

This program is rather at odds with some of the other education initiatives currently underway. The move to start schools later so that young people get the sleep they need for strong developmental health does not support this initiative. One of the professed reasons that schools are moving for this is to give students a chance of reaching standardized testing levels better. However, recent reform via the ESSA bill makes this less of a priority as standardization is being devalued in favor of more sustainable teaching methods (Gonchar).

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Those who most strongly advocate for an extended school day are those who believe that low-income children need the extra time for learning and opportunities for extracurricular activities. However, there are those who point out, “students from highly supportive families constitute the lowest, or least demanding, tier of the PreK-12 education market” (Staker). It is most likely that low-income children are from the least stable homes, and may need extra time at school to avoid persistent issues at home. However, this turns school into a daycare center, and ignores the fact that research is consistent that struggling students benefit the most from parental involvement. Thus, making such at risk students even more reliant on schools does not sound like sound theory. 

Unfortunately such realities are often overlooked by those who truly do not wish to get to the core of education problems, but desire to make every appearance of doing so. One example of this is: in a statement, Luis Ubinas, the president of the Ford Foundation, said the initiative was not ‘about adding time and doing more the same. It’s about creating a learning day that suits the needs of our children, the realities of working parents, and the commitment of our teachers. It’s a total school makeover.’ (Gonchar)

This illustrates that the strong research supporting parental engagement is being ignored in favor of business as usual which is keeping parents and children apart more and more during the most important times of their developmental process. This is also represented when the cost of the extended school year is considered as, “Most calculations suggest that a 10 percent increase in time would require a 6 to 7 percent increase in cost but could save parents money in child care costs” (Tompkins). This is a question of quality vs. quantity, and nothing can replace parents in their child’s life. 

Another movement which is running against this one is the movement of separating high achieving children from lower achieving children so that the advanced students are not being held back. The extended school day program may be attempting to support lower achieving,

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Students at the expanse of many aspects of education. For instance, in a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, the researchers found that 26 states, who implemented the extended day and year program, were not able to sustain the program’s extended learning time reforms after their federal grants expired. (Schurman)

The targeted funding initiatives of the ESSA and Race to the Top may be a much more effective way of using such strategic funding. This method, mixed with the possibilities of a later start to avoid sleep deprivation as well as giving accelerated students other options may enable the achievement gap to be addressed. The fact that President Obama has offered support for all of these programs as well as for the extended school year emphasizes that he has been simply trying anything to help end the achievement gap. While this effort is appreciated, initiatives which work against each other should be pulled apart. 

Researchers in this area emphasize that Quality vs. Quantity must be a key aspect of reform, as:

The issue isn't time per se, but how it is spent

The key to increasing achievement is not necessarily more time in school but maximizing the amount of academic learning time

Any addition to allocated time will only improve achievement to the extent it is used for instructional time, which must then be used for engaged time, which, in turn, must be used effectively enough to create academic learning time

Quality is the key to making time matter ... Educators must -- to the greatest extent possible -- make every hour count

Improving the quality of instructional time is at least as important as increasing the quantity of time in school. (Tompkins)

However, some programs in the extended school year have shown success, and the contextual elements of why this is should be analyzed when determining what schools/demographics would benefit most from the program. Successes include:

In Massachusetts, the Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School saw their students' English scores jump 10%, and math scores go up 16%, after adding an hour to the elementary school day and 3½ hours to the middle school schedule. "Students know it's worth their time to be here and their time will be used well because it involves all the different aspects," said Meghan Welch, the director of operations at Orchard Gardens.

In North Carolina, the Avery County school district on Feb. 3 added 30 minutes to each day Monday through Thursday, which, in addition to more learning time, minimized the hassle of making up the 16 days they missed for snow this year, superintendent David Burleson said. School officials say they are thinking about making the extra time permanent. "We have had a lot of positive response because of the added 30 minutes, especially from teachers who feel they get more instructional time for remediation and enrichment activities," Burleson said.

Arranged to include frequent, shorter breaks, year-round calendars could help reduce "summer slide" — the loss of knowledge in the summer that disproportionately affects low-income students, according to a 2011 report by the RAND Corp. (Richaman)

While these successes show promise, the overall uncertainty of the efficacy of the program must be strongly taken into account. 

Conclusion

The extended school day/year program is unlikely to address the persistent achievement gaps it has been intended for. However, the many other reforms recently implemented have a good chance of doing this. The overall question of why and how schools are being moved to replace the teaching and support structure of the family must become a more pertinent aspect of the discussion, for the family plays the biggest role in student’s success.

Notes

1: Chart Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/can-longer-school-days-close-the-achievement-gap/

2: Chart Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/can-longer-school-days-close-the-achievement-gap/

Works Cited

Chen, Kelly. “Can Longer School Days Close the Achievement Gap? PBS, 3 Dec. 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/can-longer-school-days-close-the-achievement-gap/

Gonchar, Michael. “Do You Think a Longer School Calander Is a Good Idea?” The New York Times, 4 Dec. 2012. Retrieved from: http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/04/do-you-think-a-longer-school-calendar-is-a-good-idea/?_r=0

Richman, Talia. “School districts look at extended school days, years.” USA Today, 26 Feb. 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/02/26/politicians-remarks-reignite-extended-school-time-debate/5367289/

Schurman, Ruben H. “Examining the Extended school day: Increasing Achievement of Just a Waste of Time?” Retrieved from: http://www.wtulocal6.org/usr/2016/pdf/tl-summaries/Ruben%20Schurman_001.pdf

Staker, Heather. “Extended school days, universal daycare, and virtual schools.” Christensen Institution, 3 Jan. 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/extended-school-days-universal-daycare-and-virtual-schools/

Tompkins, Al. “Arguments For and Against Longer School Years.” Poynter, 27 Sep. 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.poynter.org/2010/arguments-for-and-against-longer-school-years/105918/