(MintPress) – Starting this fall, about 20,000 students in five states will spend at least 300 more hours in school as part of a three-year pilot program, adding hours to the school day and days to the school year to see if increased classroom time positively affects students academic achievement.
A 2012 report published by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance found that while U.S. students have not lost academic ground, at least according to their test scores, their gains are “hardly remarkable by world standards.”
Students in 11 countries have made gains in academics three times faster than American students, which is in line with years of data showing that foreign students outpace their American peers academically.
American students may not have had significantly lower scores than the top performing nations, but many of those countries far outstripped the U.S. in terms of the number of students who scored at the highest levels on tests.
Just 7 percent of U.S. students reached the advanced level in eighth-grade math, while 48 percent of eighth graders in Singapore and 47 percent of eighth graders in South Korea reached the advanced level.
To combat the stagnate academic achievement in the U.S. and prevent the U.S. from finding itself listed as one of the worst performing developed nations, 40 public schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee announced their participation in an extended time learning pilot program in December 2012, which is intended to boost student achievement and increase U.S. students’ academic competitiveness with students across the globe.
While a large part of the program’s focus is on math and science, education officials said the initiative is designed to give students access to a more well-rounded curriculum, which includes arts, music, health and physical education classes. It’s not yet known what these school curriculums will include, as Elaine Quesinberry, public affairs specialist at the U.S. Department of Education, told MintPress that school curriculums are created by the states and by law the U.S. Department of Education can’t “get involved.”
But as Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of the National Center on Time and Learning (NCTL) told MintPress, “All of the schools [in the program] are looking at and analyzing how much time students already do and should spend in [arts and health-related] programs,” and have plans for incorporating time for both.
“There are a lot of benefits to increasing time in school beyond just academics,” Davis said. She continued on to explain how programs like the Time for Innovation Matters in Education (TIME) collaborative allows children to be exposed to programs like arts, health and robotics. And with the incorporation of these enrichment programs, Davis says the NCTL finds children are more engaged in the classroom.
Though many details of the program have yet to be worked out, officials say that in addition to more opportunities, the program allows time for teachers to give individualized instruction to those students who fall behind, and it also grants teachers more class time to reinforce critical math and science skills.
During a press conference in December 2012 when the five aforementioned states announced their participation in the pilot program, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a huge proponent of a longer school year, said, “Whether educators have more time to enrich instruction or students have more time to learn how to play an instrument and write computer code, adding meaningful in-school hours is a critical investment that better prepares children to be successful in the 21st century.”
If the program succeeds, it’s likely to take effect in other schools, meaning American schools may once again be offering arts, health and physical education courses, at the price of a longer school day and year.
2013 pilot program
While the 11 school districts participating in the initiative this fall get to create their own curriculums, backers of the program hope that some parts of the initiative are incorporated across the board, including staggered schedules; the incorporation of both traditional and computer-mediated learning; time for internships and project-based opportunities; and time for teachers to collaborate and plan lessons.
Jeannie Oakes, director of educational opportunity and scholarship programs at the Ford Foundation, a financial backer of the initiative, told the Christian Science Monitor, while some of the additional class time may go toward teachers spending more one-on-one time with students, a large chunk will also go toward enrichment opportunities like music, art, robotics or sports.
Advocates for a longer school year, like the NCTL, argue that increased classroom time not only helps close the achievement gap, but allows students to once again be exposed to subjects that are not tested.
On its website, NCTL advocates that schools with more class time don’t have to cut science, social studies, music, art and physical education in order to ensure teachers have enough time and resources allocated to the two subjects that are tested: reading and math.
NCTL also argues that expanded-time schools usually offer students enrichment courses ranging in subjects from robotics and astronomy to drama and creative writing, and have the ability to bring in outside partners to supplement and enhance education programs, such as local businesses, higher education institutions and arts and cultural institutions.
For example, Golder College Prep in Chicago has about an 80 minute longer school day than surrounding schools, which amounts to about an extra seven school days a year. But what sets Golder apart from other schools, at least in the Chicago area, is that in addition to the required English, math, science, social studies and foreign language classes, students are also required to complete 200 hours of enrichment activities outside of the traditional school day.
“We have everything from cooking to guitar to documentary filmmaking during a semester,” explained Michael Kucera, assistant principal of curriculum and professional development. Kucera added, “Students can also get enrichment credits for activities that are not affiliated with the school – from participating in anything from Drivers’ Ed to boxing to summer programs at universities.”
High price tag for quality education?
Adding 300 or more hours to the school calendar is not a cheap endeavor, especially when given the current economic circumstances — as many schools across the nation have struggled to keep their doors open five days a week.
But as Rob Beam, principal of Johnson Elementary School in Southwest Denver, told a local CBS affiliate, he’s excited his school will be taking part in the nationwide class time expansion initiative, citing he and others felt morally compelled to expand classroom time because it’s what kids need to be successful.
“Even before money, if you ask a teacher what don’t have enough of? It’s time. Over and over and over again. So, if you give people what they ask for and show them how to do it well, you should see success.”
All five of the states taking part in the initiative have received waivers from the Education Department, meaning they don’t have to abide by the No Child Left Behind rules. Davis says this is important because many school curriculums were narrowed as a result of the legislation.
Davis says, “There are a multitude of reasons why this issue is important in our economy,” listing U.S. students’ inability to “keep pace with our international competitors” as a main concern.
But some, like Jonathan Rabinovitz, warn that when differences in countries’ social class are taken into account, U.S. students performance greatly improves. In an article he wrote for Stanford University, Rabinovitz cites a report detailing how errors in selecting sample populations of test-takers and arbitrary choices regarding test content contribute to results that appear to show U.S. students lagging.
To help cover the increased operating costs, the Ford Foundation has pledged financial donations to the schools participating in the program. Schools will also receive financial support from federal and state funds, but the exact amount of how much funding the schools will receive from each source is not yet known.
The Ford Foundation’s financial interest in educational programs is not new, as for the last two years, the group has made million dollar commitments to help nonprofit groups work with school districts to restructure the school day and year.
But one issue that comes with paying for longer school days is teachers income — especially since the recession has severely tightened both state and local budgets. Currently, teachers make less than minimum wage if you consider how many hours they spend working to prepare lesson plans and grading papers, in addition to the hours they put in in the actual classroom.
While teachers’ incomes vary from state to state, the income gap between teachers in the U.S. and other workers with college degrees in the U.S. is wider than in most of the rest of the developed world. Meaning the average primary-school teacher earns about 67 percent of what the average college-educated worker earns.
While some teachers want to support their students, they say they are resistant to agree to extended school days for fear they won’t be compensated enough for their additional time.
During a panel discussion on expanded learning time in Boston in October 2011, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said that in order for extended learning to be successful, the additional time must be used well and teachers must be compensated.
“Boston students, especially disadvantaged children, would be well-served if the city made the investment in an extended learning time program that’s designed and implemented well and that compensates teachers for the added time,” Weingarten says. “Doing both is good for kids and fair to teachers.”
Part of what led to a teachers strike last fall in Chicago, was a disagreement over the length of the school day. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted a longer school day for Chicago’s public schools, but the teachers’ union was hesitant to simply comply with Emanuel’s plan, as there were concerns teachers would be forced to work longer hours. An agreement was later reached and the strike ended when Chicago school districts agreed to hire more teachers so classroom teachers wouldn’t have to work longer hours and cover the added enrichment programs.
Yet other teachers, like Tabitha Jones, a teacher at Johnson Elementary, believe the school year should be extended even if she doesn’t see a spike in her paycheck. Jones told Denver’s CBS4 that she could have voted against Johnson Elementary’s participation in the TIME pilot initiative, but says that she and about 90 percent of the school’s faculty voted in-favor of it because it was the right thing to do. “Not because I want to work more or work harder; our kids need it,” she explained.
While just 11 districts are participating in this specific extended-learning program this fall, Davis told MintPress that the Obama administration has put resources in the budget to support expansion of learning time for schools in all 50 states. She added that while the programs don’t look the same, there is also real momentum in state legislatures in terms of financing and supporting similar programs.
No more summer vacation?
Much to the chagrin of some students and the “Save Our Summers” alliance of parents, grandparents, educational professionals and some summertime recreation providers, increased classroom time comes at the cost of a shortened summer break. There are already nearly 1,000 schools that have year-round curriculum in America already, as the National Summer Learning Association (NSLA) has reported for years that students score higher on tests in the same subjects at the beginning of summer than they do at the end.
“The research is very clear about that,” Charles Ballinger, executive director emeritus of the National Association for Year-Round School in San Diego, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The only one’s who don’t lose are the upper 10 to 15 percent of the student body. Those tend to be gifted, college-bound, they’re natural learners who will learn wherever they are.”
But it’s not just the children who lack enthusiasm about a longer school year. According to the Huffington Post, a 2011 report from the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education discredits the belief that students around the globe outperform American children because American children don’t spend as much time in the classroom. In fact, the report found that students in high-performing countries such as South Korea, Finland and Japan actually spend less time in school than most U.S. students.
Similarly, some parents are concerned year-round school will prevent families from traveling and won’t allow children a chance to rest their minds after a strenuous academic year.
“I had a parent at one meeting say, ‘I want my child to lie on his back in the grass watching the clouds in the sky during the day and the moon and stars at night,’” Ballinger said. “I thought, ‘Oh, my. Most kids do that for two, three, maybe four days, then say, ‘What’s next?’”
And as Secretary Duncan reminds opponents to year-round schooling, “The fact that our [academic] calendar has been based on the agrarian economy when almost none of our kids work in the field anymore, doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.”
But as the New York Times reported, students attending year-round schools, like Bethany and Garvin Phillips, from Phoenix, don’t necessarily seem to mind the extra school days. Both attend Griffith Elementary, where 90 percent of the students qualify for either a free or reduced lunch.
NCTL and other education advocates argue that schools like Griffith, allow low-income children more of the time they need in the classroom so they can succeed like their affluent peers.
“It’s not as simple as ‘Oh, if we just went 12 hours every kid would be Einstein,’” said Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the Boston-based nonprofit research group the National Center on Time and Learning. “On the other hand, the more time you spend practicing or preparing to do something, the better you get at it.”
And according to a study from Johns Hopkins University, students, especially those from low-income families, tend to forget what they learned in the school year, likely because they often lack access to basic learning tools such as newspapers.
“For some schools that serve higher income students, those families are paying for activities outside of school to enhance their children’s education,” Davis said. “Those families need to be assured their children will still get those quality [enrichment] programs. But schools serving high poverty students who don’t have those opportunities, [extended learning] is their only chance.”
Still, some, like Peter Gray, a psychology research professor at Boston College, believe the U.S. needs to find another solution to fixing academic gaps than relying on the schools. “It is true that we have an unfair society, and it is true that kids who are coming from the poorer backgrounds and whose parents don’t do a lot of reading are losing reading skills over the summer. But let’s look at other solutions,” he said. Adding, “Whatever job we give to the school system, they ruin it.”
What to expect
While the exact details of the initiative, including the curriculums, have yet to be released, the program is already being hailed as a possible key in closing the achievement gap. Davis told MintPress that groups like NCTL have found a lot of evidence showing that when schools and their partners redesign time and put in place strategies for effective education, there are tremendous results.
“This kind of school change or change in any community is challenging because the school calendar in the U.S. has remained virtually the same for 200 years,” Davis said. She added that changing school schedules is met with some resistance, but believes if people are engaged in the process then they will come to support initiatives like this.
In an statement to the Boston Globe, Matthew Wilder, a spokesman for the Boston public schools said extended day programs have been a key strategy for improving underperforming schools, and the district plans to extend the day at more schools this fall.
“Superintendent [Carol] Johnson believes that our students require additional time with their great teachers. However, she also believes that just adding time to the school day isn’t enough; an extended day must be methodically planned and include opportunities such as the arts and athletics for it to be successful.”
But some, like Robert Stonehill, managing director at the American Institutes for Research in Washington — which has done significant work on expanded-learning programs — reminds educators and parents, “If you’re looking just at an extended school day, it’s hard to figure out what if any impact it has. But if you look at the real quality programs, that’s a different story.”