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What's to Gain with a Longer School Day?

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Updated on May 15, 2014

It’s no secret that American schools are in trouble. Forget foreign languages, physics and art; many struggle just to teach kids the three R’s. In a bid to get students up to speed on standardized exams, many schools have cut P.E. and recess. 50% of kids do no after-school activities at all, leaving them bored and often unsupervised when the bell rings at 2:30. But all of these problems have a simple solution, according to Christopher Gabrieli and Warren Goldstein, the authors of Time to Learn: How A New School Schedule is Making Smarter Kids, Happier Parents, and Safer Neighborhoods. The answer? More school. Goldstein and Gabrieli argue that adding about two hours to the traditional six hour day would:

  • Narrow the achievement gap. While affluent families supplement their children’s educations with private classes, camps, and tutors, low-income students fall further and further behind. “Adding to the school day allows schools to give them the same individualized attention, the same added homework help and tutoring and the same opportunities to develop their musical, arts, drama, athletic and other dimensions,” say the authors. In the year after Massachusetts tested the Expanded Learning Time Initiative, which added about two hours to the school day, participating schools narrowed the achievement gap in English by 35% and science by almost 15%.
  • Make life easier on working families. School lets out at 2:30. Work doesn’t. While parents worry, many kids go home to empty houses or dangerous streets. Best case scenario? Too much tv. Worst case? You don’t want to know.
  • Improve student motivation. No, your child probably won’t jump for joy at the thought of a longer school day, but having the time to study fun stuff as well as the core material necessary to pass standardized exams wins over many skeptics. Students in extended-day programs report that the quality of the teaching changes too; teachers have more time to answer questions, engage in dialogue, and get to know students. And having time for recess and extracurriculars doesn’t hurt, either.
  • Improve children’s health. The days when kids spent the afternoon biking and playing catch are long gone, yet many schools don’t have time to offer gym class or even recess. With a longer school day, kids would have time to burn off some calories as well as the restless energy that often makes it hard to focus.

The advantages of a longer school year are obvious, but how we’d implement it is less clear. A number of things have to fall into place: parents have to want it, teachers have to agree to work longer hours, school districts have to find additional funding and come to terms with teachers’ unions, and schools need to undergo a massive overhaul so that students spend their time actually learning rather than languishing in failing schools. “Young people today need exceptionally strong academic skills if they are to thrive in the 21st Century economy and society,” say Goldstein and Gabrieli. Despite the difficulties inherent in making systemic change, Time to Learn makes a compelling argument that students don’t need new schools; they simply need a little more time. For more information, visit www.timeandlearning.org  

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