A Matter Of Time
Extended school time is an education reform option that seems to be gaining in popularity. President Obama gave his endorsement earlier this year, while districts such as DCPS have extended time legislation under consideration.
The idea is fairly simple: Make the school day and/or year longer, so kids will have more time to learn. Unlike many of the policy proposals flying around these days, it’s an idea that actually has some basis in research. While, by itself, more time yields negligible improvements in achievement, there is some evidence (albeit mixed evidence) that additional time devoted to “academic learning” can have a positive effect, especially for students with low initial test scores. So, more time might have potential benefits (at least in terms of test scores), but the time must be used wisely.
Still, extending schools days/years, like all policy options, must of course be evaluated in terms of cost effectiveness. Small increases, such as adding a few days to the school calendar, are inconsistently and minimally effective, while larger increases in school time are an expensive intervention that must be weighed against alternatives, as well as against the fact that states and districts are, facing a few more years of fiscal crisis, cutting other potentially effective programs.
Much of the renewed attention to extended days/years seems to be a result of the fact that most of the high-profile, high-performing charter schools in the U.S. have unusually long days and years. For instance, earlier in the year, the Washington Post ran an editorial arguing that new evidence on KIPP’s effectiveness represented a clear rationale for extended time. The problem is that KIPP schools, through a 9-hour day, mandatory Saturdays, and three weeks of summer instruction, end up with about 50-60 percent more time than typical public schools. How realistic is it to expect that regular public schools would even approach this amount of additional time?
And, indeed, the Obama administration and other proponents of extended school time aren’t calling for the type of massive investment in school time that KIPP and similar charters employ. Among other problems, it’s much too expensive. Teachers and other school employees must be compensated (yes, they must, as they would have to be in any job in the private sector), and buildings must be kept running. KIPP gets millions in private funding to support this extra time. Regular public schools do not.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I am gratified that, in a time of severe budget problems and cost-cutting mania, there are still some areas in which policymakers are willing to consider investing greater resources. In a sense, however, the fact that states and districts are laying off teachers and cutting pre-K and other programs is itself a form of policy choice. Simultaneously calling for an increase in school time is tantamount to choosing this policy over class size reductions and early childhood intervention (and several others, including, perhaps, teacher-related policies) — alternatives with a stronger track record of effectiveness.
It’s possible that policymakers have privately assessed the costs and benefits of a marginal extension in school time versus the other options. If so, they need to show their work. But I’m guessing that we don’t have the resources to for the massive, KIPP-style expansion of time that appears to be motivating this push, and even if we did, there has been insufficient focus on using the time that schools already have more effectively - e.g., a more coherent curriculum.
It’s still early in the game in most places. And I’m hoping that we are not once again jumping into the policy waters without sticking our foot in.