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President Barack Obama has made education one of the cornerstones of his administration, calling for several reform measures to be put on the table in an effort to improve student achievement, including one very controversial idea: that our kids need to be in school more.
Central to his argument is that our academic calendar was designed for a nation of farmers who needed their children at home to work on the farm at the end of each day and over the summer season. “That calendar may have once made sense, but today it puts us at a competitive disadvantage,” President Obama said at a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea every year. That’s no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy. That’s why I’m calling for us not only to expand effective after school programs, but to rethink the school day to incorporate more time whether that be over the summer or expanded day programs for children that need it.”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has echoed that call, stating that students should be in school six or seven days a week, 11 months out of the year.
Though the question of school instruction time has been batted around for decades, the words of Duncan and Obama now strike a cord—in part because they hold the purse strings for what remains of the economic stimulus money, including a competitive grant for innovative reforms called the Race to the Top.
Legislators and school chiefs around the country are proposing extended school hours, but one of the ideas gaining the most traction is the Expanded Learning Time initiative in Massachusetts. In 2006, the state included $6.5 million in the budget for grant money to support longer school days, a longer school year, or both—with a minimum requirement of an extra 300 hours per year. The reasons for implementing the program were pretty clear, says JC Considine, spokesman for The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education: “The traditional school calendar is no longer meeting today’s demands.”
Considine says that in designing the initiative, the education department wanted to ensure that schools didn’t just add extra time to the day, but were thoughtful about the quality of that extra time. That’s why they required that schools add instruction time in core subject areas, offer enrichment and applied learning opportunities, and create more time for educators to plan together and participate in professional development.
The initiative was expanded in 2009, with $17.5 million from the state. Right now, 26 schools out of the 1,850 public schools in the state are running with an Expanded Learning Time program.
While it’s still too early to tell if the extra time in school is translating into higher test scores, Considine says a recent survey shows that 77 percent of parents reported an improvement in their child’s academic performance.
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