Is More Truly Better?

After 15 years of school choice, have we learned how to help disadvantaged children?  The achievement gap remains. A year of school produces a year’s worth of learning.  Children who lack kindergarten readiness skills must somehow learn faster just to catch up. Yes, access to high quality preschool programs is needed, but for children already in school, is more school better?

The evidence is mixed, but hopeful, if the funding can be managed. Here are some examples:

Miami Dade, Florida had an extended day/year round program for 39 schools from 2004-2008. Some students had an additional hour of remediation; others had enrichment activities. In the end, differences in achievement were greater in classes within a school than between schools, and the project was cancelled. More time by itself was insufficient. Teacher choice, merit pay, and professional development were also important. These are issues that arise in many educational reform efforts.

San Diego, California has run a traditional and year round schedule simultaneously since the 70s to meet enrollment demands. By 2005, the achievement gap between demographic groups in the elementary schools was significantly reduced. The district, however, was forced to cut 5 days from both programs for financial reasons.

In 2008, the New York City charter school evaluation report stated  that a longer school day and year improved achievement of students from low income families. Class size, after school programs, reading and math curricula, however, had no effects on the outcome.

A 2009 Stanford University study reported how N.Y. charters were able to affect achievement. The average charter school year was 192 eight hour days compared to 180 six and a half hour days for traditional public schools. Charters had summer and after school programs with more time for English and math. Over one-half of charters had a mandatory Saturday school for some students. Direct instruction, teacher led drill and practice, was a preferred strategy, especially in math. Per pupil funding for charters was the same in TPS, but unlike charters in most states, they shared public school facilities and received substantial extra funding from the private sector.

After a two-year confrontation, the Chicago teachers union and the city reached a compromise to offer a 7 hour school day and a longer school year. Chicago’s educational reform effort provided salary increases and modified procedures to minimize costs by closing schools and eliminating teaching positions.

Due to a billion dollar cut in 2009 education funding, Florida districts eliminated summer school and the sixth period. Small increases in funding prompted the legislature to mandate a six hour day for some schools that showed low reading performance. Seventy out of 100 low performing schools were able to raise reading levels in 2013, and 300 schools were then designated for a 6th period in 2014. The need for more time for remediation is great. In 2013, 37,000 third graders were subject to retention for failing the FCAT in reading.

Most recently, the U.S. DOE and the Ford Foundation sponsored pilot projects in public schools with 300 hours of extended learning time in 5 states: Connecticut, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee.   Scaling up such pilot programs would be a major challenge in many states.  Public resistance to higher taxes means that assessment, preschool, Common Core, and other programs must compete for available dollars.

An interesting paper titled “Models for Extended Day and Funding Options” was published by the United Way in Santa Fe New Mexico. It offers some cost effective alternatives.

  • Stagger school start times and/or vacations
  • Rotate students among teachers to gain time flexibility
  • Use community resources to extend staff for tutoring etc.
  • Use technology as a teaching aide
  • Provide online courses
  • Offer after school magnets

Perhaps the biggest threat to most innovative reform proposals is the failure to consider the law of unintended consequences. Experience teaches us to ask informed questions. As we consider the merits of different proposals, we should listen carefully to those voices that ask:

Is technology used to replace or supplement instruction?

What does extended time in school offer to motivate children to learn?

How does more student learning time correlate with teacher quality, cooperation, and training?

A well intentioned proposal, improperly implemented, can do more harm than good. We need to be certain that more schooling is truly better.

Posted in Achievement, Colorado, Connecticut, Department of Education, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Reform, Tennessee, US Government.

One Comment

  1. I’ve always wondered why anyone would expect more of something that isn’t working to somehow start working better.
    “What does extended time in school offer to motivate children to learn?” is an especially good question. I can easily imagine a child who is already frustrated or bored being made to sit at a desk even longer, so that now we have a child who is frustrated, bored, and very tired– certainly not more able to learn.

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