Trying Longer Not Smarter

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Today’s announcement that some states are going to extend the school day was met, in my house at least, with a howl of disapproval from my younger son, a hint of glee from my sadistic side, but mostly a collective yawn and a smirk. While Texas is not one of the states implementing the change, our legislators have considered such a move.

I can see where the idea might have some viability. In particular, our current day (6.5 hours from 7:45 to 3ish) is inconvenient and, in many case, not well-suited for any deep learning. Well-off parents can supplement any educational short-comings and pay for after school care (or have one parent stay home), but vast numbers of parents are forced to give their child a key and hope they get home on time.  Additionally, at-risk students could certainly use the extra school day to receive supplemental instruction. In some respects, a longer day turns the school into the hub of the neighborhood. No doubt a school day designed around an agricultural, seasonal calendar might not be real applicable in 2012.

I can say that I would categorically support a longer school day if we had intentions of creating a new and exciting learning environment. We might consider grouping students by something other than age, for instance, and dedicate 8:00-10:00 to math classes focused on ability. We would consider creating enrichment activities during the day that allowed for application and exploration of novels, history, and the arts. We could get really crazy and spend October and November on nothing but Reading and Writing, then move to Dec., January, and February for STEM activities. March, April, and May might find a way to bring the two groups together. I might even get excited if we returned physical education as an important element of our student’s school day. In other words, if we move to an 8 hour school day, let’s truly re-imagine how we conduct our school day.

I could create my own list of school structure (5 keys to educational success!), but I don’t really need to, do I? Back when H. Ross Perot ran for president, our last viable 3rd party candidate, he told us over and over again that “I don’t need a defined budget plan. There are thousands of plans that already exist.” Perot told us his job wasn’t to reinvent the wheel. His job was to take the best parts from the best plans and lead implementation.

Education can work the same way, with a caveat. There are thousands of successful educational models from which to draw. If we implement a longer school day, we could open the door for experimentation and exploration if we let individual school districts and teachers develop programs that address their needs. Del Rio (on the Texas/Mexico border) has different needs than Casper, Wyoming.

But does anyone really think we will? Texas cut billions from school funds last year and raised the average class size. For the second time in recent memory, school districts across the state are suing the state over funding equity issues. Bus routes are slowly being eliminated in school districts, teacher pay is frozen, standardized testing is up, and 46% of teachers leave within their first 5 years.

How, one might ask, will increasing the workday by 90 minutes help? School districts, we assume, will absorb the increased costs associated with  utilities, security, janitorial services, food (do we really think we can keep kids 8-5 and NOT feed them something in the afternoon?), and teacher salaries. These increased costs come at a time where support for raising revenues is as low as it can be. Hell, at the national level, our government can’t even agree to vote on issues on which they agree (“We agree, but we won’t support their agreement!”). Simply put–show me the money.

More importantly, and maybe it’s just Monday morning cynicism, lengthening the school day simply to provide more time to prepare for standardized tests won’t improve performance. The kids who drop out of school don’t drop out because the school day is too short. (“Well, I would have stayed in school, but I only had to suffer through 6 1/2 hours. Now, if I could have gotten a full 8 hours of boredom, I would have stuck around.”) More important, the kids who need help will be lumped in with the kids who don’t need additional help, creating a situation where high achievers are bored and low achievers are ignored. No child left behind indeed. We’ll just suck everyone into the pit of mediocrity.

Instead of falling into the one-size fits all trap, why not take the money we would spend on increasing the school day for every child and focus on providing for those who need help? If you have a D or F in a class, stay after and get tutoring from either a paid student-tutor or a teacher contracted to help. Need to use a computer, we have a lab for you. Need to find a place to stay until your parents get home, we partnered with the YMCA (or another group) to provide an after-school program.

And let’s feed the kids who stay after if they need it. The path to academic achievement might not travel through the stomach, but an empty stomach can certainly delay the trip.

Most importantly, we don’t need one program applied to every situation. My kids, and I know I’m lucky here, don’t need a longer school day. My son’s a senior and he already has two class periods off. My younger son is filling part of his schedule with a blow off class. But, they have friends who need help. Take the money we might spend on my sons and use it wisely.

I fully agree with my conservative friends who tell me throwing money at schools won’t improve performance, but bombarding overwhelmed, understaffed, overworked schools with more time demands doesn’t work either.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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