With test scores faltering in many school districts and American students lagging behind their counterparts in other countries around the world, education reform has become a hot topic of late. One of the ways many school districts are looking to improve their grades and test scores is by lengthening the school day, with the idea that more time at school means more time that teachers can work with and educate students.
While longer school days may work for some students and districts as a whole, research on the issue is divided. Some studies have found little to no benefit to extending the school day, at least not without making serious other changes to the school’s curriculum as well. Others take a more positive view. We’ll leave it to you to make up your own mind whether lengthening the school day is a good move for America’s schools (it comes at a pretty hefty cost, too). No matter how you feel, make sure to check out these studies that will help you better understand the real-life impact extended school days may or may not have on American education.
One of the studies that has helped to popularize the idea of lengthening the school day is this one, conducted by the Department of Education in Massachusetts. The study, conducted in 2006-2007, found that increasing the school day by 25% in 18 schools around the state caused test scores to rise by 4.7-10.8 percentage points. Other pilot programs conducted in regional schools, including one in New Hampshire, were found to improve not only test scores but grades as well. Additional funding from state grants has helped to offset the costs associated with the extra in-class time required by these new plans, and with the success of these early programs, more schools are expected to apply for the grants this year.
One of the reasons studies on extended schools days can be so confusing is that many come up with quite different results, making them hard to reconcile with one another. While Massachusetts may have had great success in extending the school day, other school districts and states haven’t found the same to be true. An independent evaluation of DC-area schools found that, with the exception of higher science scores for fifth graders, there were no statistically significant differences between schools with expanded schedules and those with conventional days. Fans of extended-program schools point out, however, that the extended day at these schools (only 30 minutes more) simply may not be long enough to produce any real results.
- Some scholars have argued that it isn’t longer school days that improve scores, but the quality of interactions students have with teachers.
When it comes to the school day, quality is much more important than quantity. At least that’s what some researchers believe. Larry Cuban, a professor of education at Stanford, argues in his book Hugging the Middle that too much attention is being focused on the length of the school day, when the real issue is the quality of education students receive while they’re in school, no matter how long they’re there. He showcases a range of studies showing that there’s little evidence to suggest that lengthening the school day alone is enough to create a marked change in student performance. Schools use extending the school day as a way to avoid making real, sustained, difficult changes in how schools are run.
Those who stand to benefit the most from extended school days may be students who are at-risk, low-achieving, or who come from low-income areas. Numerous programs like KIPP schools and the LA’s BEST program have helped thousands of low-income students improve their grades, stay in school, and even go on to college. The numbers don’t lie when it comes to these programs, but they aren’t accurate representations of the average American school. When it comes to public schools in general, the results of studies are much less clear on the benefits of an extended day, even for at-risk students. Research results have been mixed for both extended-day and after-school programs, leading many to question if they are truly worth the cost.
More time in school may not make a bit of difference if students aren’t using it effectively. One study found that students weren’t on task for a majority of the hours they were in school, citing problems that ranged from motivation to poor delivery of instruction. These findings suggest that money may be better spent on improving curriculum, delivery, and teacher development rather than extending school days.
In 2010, a paper called "Extending the School Day or School Year: A Systematic Review of Research" reviewed a decade’s worth of studies on extended school days. It found a number of things, including that extending the school day could help improve student outcomes, but only under certain circumstances. Extending the school day alone doesn’t lead to an increase in student achievement. The best and most reliable gains were achieved by schools that didn’t just add extra time but that made plans detailing exactly how that extra time was to be used. This may be part of what causes so much confusion between research that supports extended school days and that which doesn’t, reemphasizing the importance of the quality not the quantity of time spent at school as the deciding factor.
The Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness conducted a study on the difference between extended school days in charter schools versus public schools. While they didn’t find a major difference in how the extended day programs were working for students, what they did find was that schools that had a shorter summer, using a year-round or extended school year program, had better long-term outcomes for students than those that didn’t. Students in a year-round program spend less time out of school on break and thus have less time to forget what they’ve learned, get in trouble, or otherwise set back their education. Students in these schools returned to school in the fall at a higher level than their peers, showing that spreading vacation out through the year may have just as big an impact as adding hours throughout.
Whether it’s after-school programs or extended days, for some students, simply having activities to keep them in school and out of trouble may be enough to improve their educational outcomes. Activities like marching band, drama, chess, and a variety of academic clubs may help motivate struggling students get through the school day and increase their engagement in school activities. Studies have shown that 8 million children ages 5 to 14 regularly spend time without adult supervision, in some cases as much as 25 hours a week. This time is generally spent watching TV, playing video games, or using the Internet, not on school work or self-improvement. Additionally, studies have shown that students without adult supervision are at a greater risk of accidental death, drug use, crime, and dropping out of school. Of course, critics argue that schools aren’t babysitters, and that parents should be responsible for watching children at all times, not teachers.
Extended school days may have their benefits, but those are greatly reduced when students are required to come to class earlier. Numerous studies have shown that later school start times are directly correlated with lower truancy, better student health, and decreased tardiness. Additionally, students were found to have an easier time staying awake in class and as a result got better grades than students with earlier start times. Schools hoping to extend their days would be well advised to do so in the afternoon, not the morning, as any gains from additional hours in school may be negated by a group of tired, cranky students. Additionally, student safety may be an issue to consider as well, as one study showed that students driving themselves to school had far fewer accidents when their start time was pushed back an hour.
While many educational reformers point to high-performing schools around the world with extended hours as examples of what American schools should be doing, it isn’t quite that simple. Many of these schools have quite different curricula, methods, and expectations of students, not to mention differences in culture and support from public programs. What’s more, many of the best schools in the world actually have shorterschool days than the U.S., suggesting that it’s not more time that students need in the classroom but better instruction and more support from teachers. Take Finland for example, where education programs have been lauded worldwide. The average Finnish student spends only 600 hours a year in school, which is just more than half the average of 1,100 hours for U.S. students.
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