Increasing class time fraught with controversy

In the months since Education Secretary Arne Duncan was confirmed by the Senate he has said repeatedly he believes American schoolchildren need to be in class longer if they are to compete with students abroad–an idea that provokes strong opinions on both sides of the issue.

“Go ahead and boo me,” Duncan told about 400 middle and high school students April 7 at a public school in northeast Denver. “I fundamentally think that our school day is too short, our school week is too short, and our school year is too short.”

“You’re competing for jobs with kids from India and China. I think schools should be open six, seven days a week; eleven, twelve months a year,” he said.

Increasing the amount of time students are in class is one of four areas that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) is targeting to improve education in America. The other three are implementing more data-driven decision making, raising state and national standards, and rewarding teacher excellence. (See “Duncan outlines school reform agenda.”)

More time spent in class is one of the key principles of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), a model for instruction that is gaining traction nationwide.

While superintendent of Chicago schools, Duncan helped bring the program to the district, said KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini. The Chicago KIPP school opened in 2003.

“Secretary Duncan was a champion for KIPP. … He knows that the KIPP schools work and, as he’s said, he wants to grow what works and work to implement them at the national level,” Mancini said.

KIPP schools not only encourage longer school days, weeks, and years, but also focus on setting higher expectations, giving principals the power to lead, focusing on improving academic results as well as students’ character, and asking students and parents to commit to the school. Mancini said increasing the time students are in school, as well as promoting the other four pillars of KIPP schools, has enabled the schools to be successful.

The program has seen about 85 percent of the students from its first two KIPP middle schools, which opened in 1999, go on to college–many of whom are minorities or come from low-income families, a demographic that reportedly sees less than 20 percent of students go on to college. Next year, the organization will have more than 80 schools in 19 states. Most KIPP schools are public charter schools and serve students in grades five through eight.

Mancini said most KIPP students are in school from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and from 7:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Fridays. They also spend three to four hours in school every other Saturday and attend school for three or four weeks during the summer.

“So they spend roughly 60 percent more time learning,” he said.

But some education experts say simply keeping students in school longer won’t improve the education they receive.

“Secretary Duncan is confusing time in school with time on productive learning,” said Bob Compton, creator of the global education documentary “Two Million Minutes.” In the documentary, Compton followed six children from India, China, and the U.S. to compare and contrast their four years of high school. (See “eSN TechWatch: Two Million Minutes.”)

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