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.”)

“You’ll notice in Indian and Chinese schools, the students spend a lot more time on task. American schools have more study breaks, and the classes are generally shorter,” he said. “Instead of increasing the school day, the bigger question is: Are we teaching the right subjects for students to compete in the 21st century?”

Besides time on task, Compton said educational success has to do with improving the caliber of the curriculum, and increasing the content knowledge of the instructor. Those factors must improve if students are going to compete globally, he said.

“In India and China, in order to teach high school physics the teacher must have at least a bachelor’s [degree] in physics. In the U.S., teachers only need to have a degree in education and 20 to 24 hours of science–and not necessarily in physics,” he said.

Compton said educational success has little to do with the duration of the school day and more to do with time on task, improving the caliber of the curriculum, and increasing the content knowledge of the instructor. Those things must change if students are going to compete globally, he said.

“Doing more of the same and expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity. I think that’s what Arne Duncan is doing,” he said.

Arthur Griffin, senior vice president of national urban markets for McGraw-Hill Education, agreed that educators should focus more attention on how students are using their time in school.

“Extending the school day without making any changes mostly likely won’t improve anything,” he said. “What helps in terms of global competitiveness is to make sure the quality of teaching during regular hours or extended hours is high. And we have to make sure teachers are prepared to teach in an extended environment.”

Griffin, who also was board chairman for North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, said increasing students’ time on task makes sense, but students need to learn how to be both critical and creative thinkers by spending time working in groups and with different types of people.

“Extending the school day is not the silver bullet. That concept, along with other strategies, will make sure that students are able to be competitive globally,” he said.

Other education experts think additional time spent in school will benefit learning.

Charles Ballinger, executive director emeritus of the National Association for Year-Round Education, said he knows critics of the idea say many schools need to do a better job with the school days they have now before the year is extended.

“But we think we need to correct what is wrong and continue to add the days at the same time,” Ballinger said. “If there is learning going on in a school, additional days should create additional learning.”

Ballinger noted that extending the school year is not a new idea.

“Extended-year schools have been in business since the 70s,” he said. “There are currently about 3,000 year-round schools in the nation, and there are probably about 300 extended-year schools.”

He said that if schools extend their school years by only 15 days, over the course of their 12 years of schooling students would have spent an extra year in school. The standard school year lasts about 180 days.

For longer school calendars to catch on more broadly, several hurdles would need to be overcome. For one thing, Ballinger admitted, cost would be an issue.

“The … cost involved in having more teaching days and personnel” could be a problem, he said.

Kay Brilliant, director of education policy and practice with the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers union, said that while she agrees increasing learning time maximizes student achievement, ED would need to fully fund whatever initiatives it proposes.

“NEA supports innovative proposals to increase learning time, such as through an extended school day, school week, or school year. Increasing learning time … helps ensure students access to a full and rich curriculum that includes art, music, physical education, and other subjects necessary for a well-rounded education,” she said.

But districts have to explore the options that best fit the needs of the students they serve, Brilliant said.

“Change must be purpose-driven and based on research that indicates that more time on particular tasks will improve student learning, and [it] should be appropriately funded. Any efforts to extend the school year [or] school day for students need to be made with the input and consent of school employees–including teachers and education support professionals–and [must] also protect educators’ collectively bargained rights,” she said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.


U.S. Department of Education

Knowledge is Power Program

“Two Million Minutes”

National Association for Year-Round Education

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