The Perennial Reform: Fixing School Time (Part 1)

In the past quarter century, fixing school time has been a popular solution reform-minded policymakers have promoted to improve U.S. schools yet one that is least connected to what happens in classrooms or what Americans want from tax-supported schools.

Since A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, Prisoners of Time in 1994, blue-ribbon commission recommendations in Tough Choices, Tough Times in 2007, and in 2012 high profile leaders formed a new national coalition to add time to the school day and year, reformers have criticized no end how long and how well students spend time in school.

Criticism of school schedules comes from business and civic leaders who see the United States stuck in the middle ranks of nations based on student scores on international tests. These leaders see a link between Asian and European governments requiring more days in school than the U.S. and those foreign students scoring far higher than U.S. test-takers.

Criticism of the amount of time students spend in school comes from employers who wonder whether limited days and hours spent in classes are sufficient to produce the knowledge, skills, and behaviors employees need to work in a globally competitive economy

Criticism of school schedules also come from those working parents who need schools open early in the morning and remain open until they pick up their children before dinner.

Criticism also comes from professors who scold policymakers for allotting so little time for teachers to gain new knowledge and skills during the school day. Many want policymakers to distinguish between requiring more time in school and academic learning time or time on task, jargon for those hours and minutes where teachers engage students in learning content and skills ( Berliner, What’s all the fuss about instructional time).

Finally, criticism of time in school comes from online champions who see hundreds of students sitting at school desks for 180 days as quaint when a revolution in communication devices has allowed children to learn the formal curriculum at home and other venues rather than in school buildings. Online learning advocates, joined by those who see cyber-schools as the future, want children and youth to spend less time in K-12 school buildings.


Presidential commissions, parents, academics, and employers have proposed to policymakers the same solutions again and again: Add more days to the annual school calendar. Create year-round schools. Add instructional time to the daily schedule. Extend the school day. These familiar—almost traditional–recommendations are as close as one can come, metaphorically, to the missionary position in sex. What has happened to each proposal in the past quarter-century?

Longer school year. Recommendations for a longer school year (from 180 to 220 days) have come from A Nation at Risk (1983) and Prisoners of Time (1994) plus scores of other commissions and experts. Yet over a decade later, one foundation-funded report, A Stagnant Nation: Why American Students Are Still at Risk, found that the 180-day school year was intact across the nation and only Massachusetts had started a pilot program to help districts lengthen the school year. The same report graded states’ progress made on those quarter-century old recommendations: States extending their school year received an “F.”

Year-round schools. The homespun myth that the annual school calendar with three months off for both teachers and students is based on the rhythm of 19th century farm life still receives respectful attention. Thus, planting and harvesting chores accounted for long summer breaks, an artifact of agrarian America. Not so.

Actually summer vacations grew out of early 20th century urban middle-class parents (and later lobbyists for camps and the tourist industry) pressing school boards to release children to be with their families for four to eight weeks or more. By the 1960s, however, policymaker and parent concerns about students losing ground academically during the vacation months—in academic language, “summer loss”—gained support for year-round schooling. Cost savings also attracted those who saw facilities being used 12 months a year rather than being shuttered during the summer.

Nonetheless, although year-round schools were established as early as 1906 in Gary, Indiana, calendar innovations have had a hard time entering most schools. Districts with year round schools still work within the 180-day year but distribute the time more evenly (e.g., 45 days in session; 15 days off) rather than having a long break between June and September. As of 2006, there were over 3,000 public schools (there are over 100,000 schools in the nation)—almost 60 percent in California–enrolling over 2.1 million students on a year-round calendar–less than five percent of all students attending public schools. In most cases, what got school boards to adopt year-round schools was increased enrollments crowding facilities, most often in minority and poor communities—not concerns over “summer loss.”

Adding instructional time to the school day. So many researchers and reformers have pointed out that the 6.5 hour school day has so many interruptions, so many distractions that teachers have less than five hours of genuine classroom instruction for student learning. Advocates of more instructional time have tried to stretch the actual amount of instructional time available to teachers to a seven-hour day (or 5.5 hours of time for time-on-task learning) or have tried to redistribute the existing secondary school schedule into 90-minute blocks rather than the traditional 50-minute periods. Very hard to do. Much easier has been to add time to the school day.

Extended school day. In the past half-century, as the economy has changed and families increasingly have both (or single) parents working, schools have been pressed to take on child-care responsibilities such as tutoring and homework supervision before and after school. Many elementary schools open at 7 AM for parents to drop off their children and have after-school programs that close at 6 PM in many middle class neighborhoods but especially in neighborhoods serving low-income families. Opinion polls since the early 1980s show increased support for these before- and after-school programs (KAPPAN poll). Moreover, all-day kindergartens (and pre-kindergartens for four year-olds), especially in low-income neighborhoods have spread swiftly in the past two decades. Innovative urban schools such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) run longer school days. The latter routinely opens at 7:30 AM and closes at 5 PM while scheduling biweekly Saturday classes and three weeks of school during the summer.

If there is a success story in fixing school time that reformers can thump their chests over, it is in extending the school day. How much of that success, however, came from reformers’ arguments and actions and how much came from economic and social changes in family structure and chasing a higher standard of living, I cannot say.

Cybereducation. And what about those cheer-leading technological enthusiasts who see fixing time in school as a wasted effort when online schooling can replace formal schooling?

Even the most enthusiastic advocate of cyber schools and online schooling recognizes that replacing public schools is, at best, unlikely. For time-fixing reformers who see the solution to low academic performance in adding days and hours to school schedules, however, the foreseeable future will still have 50 million children and youth crossing the schoolhouse door each weekday morning. And decade after decade, these reformers have trotted out the same recipes for changes in the annual calendar and extending time in school. Yet for all the hoopla and endorsement from highly influential business and political elites results of their mighty efforts have been minuscule. Why is that?

Cost is the usual suspect. The price tag of extending the school year to cover additional teacher salaries and other expenses runs high. One researcher estimated that going from 175 to 200 days would cost the state of Minnesota, not the largest state in the nation, $750 million a year, a large but not insurmountable price to pay. But costs for extending the school day for instruction and child-care are far less onerous. Even more attractive than adding more days to the calendar is the claim that a year-round school saves dollars. Except, then, for lengthening the school calendar, which is, at heart, a political decision about the allocation of scarce education dollars, cost is not the tipping point factor in explaining why it is so hard to fix school time. There are other reasons: I offer three in Part 2.



Filed under school reform policies

11 responses to “The Perennial Reform: Fixing School Time (Part 1)

  1. The public outcry in Canada is usually about the long summer holidays of teachers and the loss of learning for the students over the summer. The reality in a country like Canada that has only two true months of summer ( although climate change will soon affect this) is that a large number of tourist industries are dependent on that holiday. No one wants to go to camp in November or April in this country. We will never get rid of the summer holidays for that reason, not to mention the cost of equipping most schools with air-conditioning.

  2. Pingback: The Perennial Reform: Fixing School Time (Part 1) | Leading Schools |

  3. Gary Ravani

    As the OECD, the international outfit that runs the “all important” PISA, points out those nations particularly noted for high international test scores (Finland, Sweden, Korea, Japan, Denmark)all have in common is a much shorter instructional year than does the US. The US, for example runs around 1200 instructional hours a year and Finland around 600. That’s about half the time, for those not math proficient, for the kids and the teachers.
    This means US teachers put in double the amount time before students as teachers in “high performing nations.” As a consequence, US teachers have far less time for planning and collaboration.

    Some of the other difference between Finland and the US is a teaching force that is totally financially supported during its education, preparation, and induction periods and then paid at about the same level as other professionals (i.e., doctors and engineers). The teachers are almost totally unionized and government policy is to collaborate with the unions rather than demonize them. (What a concept!)

    Of course, the most telling difference between the US and Finland, as well as other “high performing” countries is–the topic which must not be discussed under threat of being accused of “being afraid of accountability,” or worse, “making excuses” –and that is childhood poverty. The “P” topic, never heard in domestic policy debates, is a disgrace in the US, the world’s wealthiest nation. Childhood poverty runs in excess of 20% in the US and under 5% in most “high performing” countries.”

    “All children will arrive at school prepared to learn.” Remember that one? That was “goal” number one in Goals 2000, created under the administration of G. H. W. Bush by the governor’s commission chaired by, then governor, Bill Clinton. That little jewel was dropped like the proverbial hot potato as soon as the politicians realized they might be held accountable for the conditions children live under prior to the kids arriving at the classroom door. Can’t have that! Better to spend 8 the next years concentrating on the president’s zipper and then come up with NCLB which puts accountability for all of the societal ills generated by having near the highest childhood poverty rate in the industrialized world onto the shoulders of classroom teachers (and their unions).

    Maybe that’s why Finland’s kids do so well on international assessment with half the time spent in their desks compared to US kids. They are not sitting in their desks sleepy from living in a shelter, hungry from being “food insecure,” sick from lack of health care, unable to see because of no vision care, and distracted by pain from lack of dental care. It’s a wonder what kids and teachers can accomplish when both are supported adequately.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for pointing out the differences in time teaching between Finland and U.S., Gary. Ditto for pointing out the matter of poverty.

  4. I have read that when you compare student acheivement by socioeconomic level, the US does as well as other countries. Our PISA score is lower, as Mr. Ravani points out, because of our higher rate of children in poverty. The semi-rural, low income school district in which I work stopped offering summer school about ten years ago because parents would not send their kids. What about mandating that kids under a certain acheivement level have to attend summer school? I bet that summer school need only run for two to three hours a day for four or five weeks in order to prevent summer loss which is considerable for kids who are not naturally good readers. Of course, this impacts poorer communities the most. Would we had a real national committment to improving the variety of skills kids need to do well in life.

    • Gary Ravani

      Emeritus USC Ed Professor Steven Krashen, as well as other researchers, have looked at US PISA scores and their relationship to school SES factors. They assert that in US schools with 10% or fewer students on “free and reduced lunch” (the usual measure of “poverty”) PISA scores lead the entire world. In those schools with 25% and fewer students on “free and reduced” US PISA scores closely match the best in the world.

      The obvious solution to “closing the achievement gap” (a value to which there is universal moral, if not practical and economic, commitment) is to create US schools where the number “free and reduced” eligible students is less than 25%. The conservative and neo-liberal strategy to achieve this would be to raise the criteria for being eligible for “free and reduced,” regardless of the actual degree of hunger in the student population, until only one in four students could qualify. The progressive alternative is to create a social safety-net , including health/vision/dental care, affordable and decent housing, living wage jobs for parents, and universal, high quality, early/child care and preK education (etc., etc.) until childhood poverty rates in this country come down to at least those rates found in the “high performing” countries almost all of which are social democracies.

      One of the reasons you get all of the hysterical, knee-jerk, sloganeering–“protecting the status quo!” “making excuses!” “afraid of accountability!” et al–is that if the topic of child poverty (or poverty generally) entered the conversation than someone shortly brings up the idea of doing something about poverty. From there the discussion rapidly goes to programs, then revenue, then to taxes. Under no circumstances can that conversation be tolerated. And people like Michelle Rhee. for example, make sure the conversation does not happen and make a very good living doing so. These people serve the likes of the Broads, the Gates, and the Waltons and make sure few billionaire’s dollars go to support anything like a social democracy, that is to say the real solution to low schools achievement, in this country.

    • larrycuban

      Not sure that reviving defunct summer schools for low-achieving kids and requiring them to attend will avoid “summer loss” is the best policy to pursue. But surely figuring out how school time is used for teaching and learning–and toward what ends–should be considered as part of any policy initiative.

      • I guess I am not suggesting it as a long term policy but a shorter term necessity (probably for some years) to catch kids up and engage them in learning. I would estimate that on average about a third of kids in Maine are not proficient in reading according to our achievement tests. It is like, how do we get our kids from here to there before a Finland style reworking of our education system drifts down upon us.

  5. larrycuban

    Thank for the clarification of your earlier comment. I am sure you know how hard it is for any school–summer or rest of school year–” to catch kids up and engage them in learning.”

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