This Month's Expert Panel: Should We Extend the School Year?
Six administrators share their views.
“I would not be opposed to extending the school day or to adding a few days to our calendar,”
says Suzanne Freeman, the superintendent of Trussville City Schools in Alabama, and a 2009 finalist for American Association of School Administrators Superintendent of the Year. “I think the greater issue is how we use our children’s time. On average, American children are in school 1,100 hours per year in the United States, compared to 701 hours in developed nations. We do a lot of things in school that are good, but aren’t related to learning.
“If we do add time, this does not necessarily translate into higher achievement. We need to think about how we use the existing time that we have, as well as providing additional time to increase learning, because learning needs to be 24/7. Kids can experience great learning opportunities outside of school or in concert with school. More learning does not necessarily mean more school hours. Our district offers internships, for instance, and places emphasis on online learning. We’re really trying to increase their learning experience exponentially.
“At the same time, the role of the teacher is changing. Teachers are now facilitators. With technology, there is a wealth of information available to anybody that can be accessed anywhere. We have to prepare kids to be continuous learners, and not always dependent on the teacher to deliver learning.
“Twenty-first-century learning is about applying knowledge to new situations; relearning, or refining that knowledge you ‘already know.’ Being successful in this country requires you to be a lifelong learner. Simply adding more classroom hours is not enough.”
“We implemented a four-day school week this year and it has given us more instructional time,”
says Gregory Schmidt, the superintendent of the Maccray School District in Minnesota. “I can’t see how we would add days to the calendar. We went to four days after our high school principal had suggested the idea as a cost-saving measure, based on the Custer, South Dakota, model. They have been doing it successfully for several years. We reduced the number of school days by 23, and then we added 65 minutes to each school day. We made up the time minute by minute. We ended up gaining 17.3 hours of instructional time, in addition to the $85,000 to $100,000 savings we are anticipating this year.
“It was a huge change, but we have kept the support of our community by giving them information at every stage. We gave people in the community information at the outset, and they have been on board. We didn’t lose any instruction time; in fact, we gained it. And we’re encouraging teachers not to waste any time, to make the most of every extra minute.”
“Despite the general consensus that increasing hours in class will increase achievement, research doesn’t support it,”
says Dan Lere, the superintendent of Pueblo County School District 70 in Colorado. “I do believe, however, that increased hours for students can give them something productive to do, and can lead to more involvement in sports, improved physical condition, and lower child care costs for parents, as well as get students involved in extra-curricular activities.
“All of this, of course, costs money, which is in very short supply, especially in Colorado, and especially in our school district. I do believe that the school week can be shortened for budgetary reasons if the district does a good job of planning delivery of the curriculum in a different time frame, and if there are good programs offered to students on the non-school day.
“I hope that someday this country, and especially Colorado, will realize that our future is our students, and we should use all of our resources to ensure that they are the best-educated graduates in the world.
“If you compare the number of classroom hours that American students spend in class compared to students in other countries (including several that out-achieve the United States, such as Korea and Finland), their kids spend less time in class than our kids do. So, the question is—as it always has been—not one of time, but of quality. We continually work to improve the quality of instruction because we know it is the most important factor when looking at student achievement.
“My question would be (as one of the lowest-funded school districts in the state of Colorado): If we are forced to consider cutting back to a four-day week to prevent laying off many teachers, how could we afford to have the schools open six days a week?
“We strongly believe that the education of the next generation is the most important work that adults can do, and are working hard to find resources that will not break the bank, but in these economic times, that is becoming increasingly difficult to do.”
“If we rethink our school day, we should also rethink the content of that day,”
says Jack Dale, the superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. “Many school districts, Fairfax included, already extend the school year by running extensive summer programs. Some of those programs are enriched fine-arts experiences, some allow students to accelerate their coursework, some provide assistance to students struggling to keep up with their peers, and others provide experiences that would otherwise not exist in the regular school year.
“As we look at different amounts of time for our school year, we must also look at allowing different amounts of time for individual students to master the content and skills we expect for the 21st century. We continue to behave as though each and every child learns at the same rate—another paradigm that needs to be examined.
“We are becoming more adept at using technology to support instruction. We are becoming more sophisticated in having technology deliver ‘just in time’ learning. Using technology more adroitly might also allow us to minimize additional costs as we change the way we allocate time for individual student learning.
“Thus, the challenge before us is not just about more school days, it is about how we blend individualized learning with teachers and technology, with the amount of time dependent on the success rate of the student. It’s a very big challenge to change all these variables, but one we should take to heart.”
“If we expect our students to compete in a global society, we need to provide more time in school,”
says Kent Scribner, the superintendent of Phoenix Union High School District in Arizona. “As groups such as the Achieve and the Gates foundations will be the first to tell you, more time in school should not be more of the same. Time in school needs to be time engaged in relevant learning, not more time sitting at a desk having someone lecture to you. Nowhere is this more critical to future success than with urban youth. Our students tell us they want to be engaged in rigorous learning, meaningful problem solving and thoughtful discourse.
“These types of critical-thinking and real-world experiences better prepare students. For instance, instead of spending more time in a lab, students can do internships with a related industry, helping to conduct relevant research to find solutions to real problems. The difference between using a textbook or computer simulation versus participating actively in a six-week internship at a company is unquantifiable. These sorts of learning experiences require more time, not less. Students need more time engaged in the creation and exploration of ideas and experiences that lead to positive socialization and lasting networks.
“There have been some schools looking at four-day school weeks. It is allowed under Arizona law and has most recently been discussed as an energy-saving, cost-saving measure, with regard to reduced transportation, operation of buildings, and so on. At least one school district has decreased the length of the school year by three days, to save costs rather than laying off teachers.
“At Phoenix Union, we have been expanding opportunities. We offer free summer school for both continuing and incoming ninth graders. We have summer programs for elementary school age students in arts and science. We also have Saturday school, before- and after-school programs, and lunchtime tutoring sessions. We have used fall break for a week-long aims [Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards exam] Training Camp, and a PSAT/SAT prep class. Most of these programs are funded through federal programs, not state-funded maintenance and operations dollars. We also have evening school at three locations serving more than 4,000 students, and have recently piloted an online credit-recovery program that will allow students to work on earning lost credits on their own time.
“Urban centers often find themselves in a position of playing catch-up to compete with students in more affluent settings. Extra time puts us in a better position to compete with the rest of the country, and the world. I believe that our students and parents would be supportive of this.
“Budget will always be a concern. The traditional nine-month contract is what states budget for, and adding to that could be seen as cost-prohibitive, particularly in this economic climate. But longer years would not just extend student class time; it could serve faculty well by supporting time allotted for better planning, professional development and professional learning communities, and other efforts to improve teaching and learning outcomes. While the idea of three months off in summer is purely myth, year-round school calendars might show promise for not only improving teaching and learning, but attracting others to the profession with a year-round income—and the time to collaborate with others to work toward improving one’s skills.
“I believe that in the urban setting, longer school years would also help retention of students by reducing mobility. The summer break is a time when students and families move. Their circumstances change and they lose contact with the very strong social and support network that schools provide. When families lose that connection, they have to go elsewhere.
“We are already seeing greater graduation expectations in Arizona, as the state standards are going from three to four years of math, and from two to three years of required science. We are diligent with our seniors to make sure they are taking full loads, and not coming to class for a half-day. We are supportive of a strong curriculum for four years that will prepare the student for success in college, career, and life.”