Toying with School Calendars (Part 2)

There are three reasons why it has been hard for reform-driven policymakers to fix school time.

*Research showing achievement gains due to more time in school are sparse; those few studies most often cited are contested.

*In narrowing the multiple goals Americans expect of their public schools to preparing workers for a globally competitive economy, current policymakers, have seriously underestimated the powerful tug that other non-economic goals (e.g. civic action, socializing children ) have on taxpayers and voters.

*Decision-makers advance proposals to fix time in school to show voters that they are solving economic problems of declining global competitiveness by lengthening the school calendar and hours of instruction in U.S. schools.


The few changes in lengthening the school year, day, and schedule that did occur in the past quarter-century did so seldom because research showed strong academic gains or cost savings resulting from more time in school. Cultural changes, political decisions, or strong parental concerns trumped research every time in tinkering with the school calendar. Moreover, the available research was (and is) skimpy. What studies exist are challenged repeatedly for being weakly designed. For example analysts examining the research on year-round schools reported that most of the studies have serious design flaws and, at best, show slight positive gains in student achievement—except for students from low-income families where the gains were sturdier.

Not only does the lack of rigorous studies make it hard to prove that time in school is the critical variable in raising academic achievement. There are so many other variables that need to be considered. Mentioning only a few critical ones gives even the most ardent researchers pause: the local context itself, available resources, teacher quality, administrative leadership, socioeconomic and cultural background of students, the taught curriculum are just the beginning for any list of factors that come into play when linking changes in time allocation to students’ academic achievement. The lack of careful research, however, has seldom stopped reform-driven decision-makers from pursuing their agendas.


Contemporary civic and business elites have reduced the multiple goals Americans expect of their public schools to a single one: prepare youth to work in a globally competitive economy.  This is the second reason why more-time-in-school proposals have failed; such a narrow goal ignores what Americans historically have expected from their public schools.

For three decades, influential groups have succeeded in calling for and getting higher academic standards, accountability for student outcomes, and more testing. By 2012, U.S. schools have put into place a federally-driven system of state-designed standards anchored in increased testing, results-driven accountability, and demands for students to spend more time in school. Reform-driven policy elites have spun the U.S.’s declining global economic competitiveness into a time-in-school problem.

But these policymakers have underestimated the clout other goals have had—and continue to have–with parents and taxpayers who expect public schools to accomplish traditional school aims. Opinion polls, for example, display again and again goals parents, voters, and taxpayers want schools to achieve. On poll listed the top five:

*To prepare people to become responsible citizens;

*To help people become economically sufficient;

*To ensure a basic level of quality among schools;

*To promote cultural unity among all Americans;

*To improve social conditions for people.(pdkpoll32_2000)

To reach those goals, a democratic society expects schools to produce adults who are active in their communities, enlightened employers, and hard-working employees who have acquired and practiced particular values that sustain its way of life. Those social, political, and economic values are dominant American norms pervading family, school, workplace, and community: Act independently; accept personal responsibility for actions; work hard and complete a job well; and be fair. Within every age-graded school in the U.S., every kindergarten, middle school algebra class, and Advanced Placement U.S. history course–these norms show up in school rules and classroom practices (brint PDF). Voters want their schools to practice these norms daily and not simply add time to the day and year.


The third reason for the persistent failure to fix time in schools in the past quarter-century is symbolic. Policy elites advance proposals to fix time in school to show voters and taxpayers how hard they are working to solve the economic problems of declining global competitiveness by lengthening the school calendar and hours of instruction in U.S. schools. Symbolic politics, that is, making serious pronouncements and adopting policies, amplified by media, that play on voters’ and taxpayers’ emotions but sidetrack public attention from deeper issues and more consequential actions also sum up the fix-school-time proposals since the early 1980s.

Examples of using political symbols to stir emotions range from media debates over whether candidates for President should wear a flag lapel pin to a non-binding Congressional resolution on a proposed U.S. history curriculum being insufficiently patriotic to city councils banning certain epithets yet attaching no penalties for people who use the forbidden words. Provoking deep emotions around a policy issue—a state referendum that English is the official language—diverts consideration of the impact of immigration on schools, available labor market, and social services. Such symbolic politics require media amplification and once amplified moves closer to theater than politics, that is, the act of talking and performing elicits emotions and trumps analysis and rational discussion.


These three reasons (lackluster research, the importance of non-economic goals to U.S. taxpayers and voters, and symbolic politics), I argue, explain why all of the time-fixing proposals to improve U.S. schools have failed to change much of what occurs in schools and the time that teachers spend teaching and students learning.

Policy elites know that research studies proving the worth of year-round schools or lengthened school days are in short supply and even were an occasional study to surface that would support the policy, it would not be a deal-breaker in extending the school year much beyond 180 days. Policy elites know that school goals go far beyond simply preparing graduates for college and to be employable in a knowledge-based economy. And policy elites know that they must show courage in their pursuit of improving failing U.S. schools by forcing students to go to school just as long as their peers do in India, China, Japan, and Korea. That courage shows up symbolically, playing well in the media, in proposals to fix time in schools but seldom alter calendars.

I wish I had an upbeat message or policy prescription for fixing school time. I do not. The stability of schooling structures and the importance of socializing the young into the values of the immediate community and larger society have defeated policy-driven efforts to alter time in school over the past quarter-century. Except for extended school days for low-income minority students and a widespread acceptance that going to school means now you go from pre-kindergarten through college, I, like the larger public, am unconvinced that requiring students and teachers to spend more time in school each day and every year will be better for them and the U.S. Without serious, sustained—and not symbolic–attention to the quality of the time that teachers and students already spend with one another in and out of classrooms, more proposals to lengthen time in school will come from state and federal blue-ribbon commissions. Like their predecessors, they will make headlines, TV news snippets, and circulate on the web as bloggers go to work on the most recent effort to improve U.S. schools. They will, however, amount to little.

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