After a summer of budget cuts in Washington and state capitals, we have only to look to our schools, when classes begin in the next few weeks, to see who will pay the price.
The minimum required school day in West Virginia is already about the length of a “Harry Potter” double feature. In Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, summer school programs are being slashed or eliminated. In Oregon and California this year, students will spend fewer days in the classroom; in rural communities from New Mexico to Idaho, some students will be in school only four days a week.
For all the talk about balancing the budget for the sake of our children, keeping classrooms closed is a perverse way of giving them a brighter future.
What’s needed is more time in classrooms, not less. Our school calendar, with its six-and-a-half-hour day and 180-day year, was designed for yesterday’s farm economy, not today’s high-tech one. While many middle-class families now invest in tutoring and extra learning time, less-privileged children are left on the sidelines, which only widens gaps in achievement and opportunity.
Two years ago President Obama said that the “challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom.” Plenty of research suggests that one of the strongest indicators of scholastic achievement is the amount of actual time devoted to learning. Therefore, we need to move schools toward longer days and years. Ideally, increasing learning time by 30 percent would mean more individualized support; a more well-rounded education in a broader array of subjects, from science and foreign languages to arts and robotics; and less unsupervised after-school and summer time. For parents, it would mean a school day better aligned with the typical work day.
The good news is that more than 1,000 schools in the United States are now using expanded schedules. Almost every high-performing charter network in the country, from KIPP to Achievement First, uses significantly more scheduled time to achieve impressive academic gains, and many public schools, spurred by local initiatives, innovative state policies and federal leadership, are also adopting this promising practice.
In Boston, for example, the Edwards Middle School has gone, in five years, from the worst-performing, least-desired middle school to a model of success after it increased scheduled teaching time by 30 percent. Students there now outperform the state average proficiency rate in math and have nearly closed achievement gaps in literacy. This has occurred in a school where over 80 percent of the students come from low-income families.
Perhaps most surprising, some schools have shown that these changes can be made without spending more money. Brooklyn Generation School replaced most administrators with teachers and staggered all employees’ schedules, allowing it to increase learning time by 30 percent without additional cost. Class sizes have been reduced and the burden on teachers lowered. Last spring, 90 percent of seniors graduated on time. Remarkably, when these students entered high school, only about 20 percent were at grade level.
These ad hoc efforts are great for the students involved. But we really need a more comprehensive national effort to make expanded learning time the norm in American education, especially for our neediest students, through smarter use of local, state and federal resources. More hours of learning — not fewer — can make a world of difference.
Luis A. Ubiñas, president of the Ford Foundation, and Chris Gabriel, chairman of the National Center on Time and Learning.