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Let's Have a 9-Hour School Day

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 16, 2005 12:24 PM

August is the month I try to remove the piles of rotting debris that have accumulated in my work cubicle during the previous 11 months. Like a high school junior being lectured by his mother, I have been telling myself I am too busy to tidy up, but even I have my limits.

The sorting process this time has been interesting. Several of the items I had dumped on the floor reminded me of an issue I wanted to write about. The big education stories this year concerned the obvious: Is the No Child Left Behind law unfairly labeling schools? Should we rely so much on standardized tests? Do our teachers have enough training? Are our federal and state governments spending enough money to educate our children?

But many of the clippings I saved were on something else that has hardly been covered at all. What is the first thing we should do to help our children learn? My answer: give them more time at school each day to do so.

Let me toss at you some of the items I found:

* "Survey Finds That High School Students Spend Little Time on Class Preparation, Almost No Time Reading" -- page seven of the biweekly newsletter "Straight A's" by the Washington-based nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education.

* "What's Wrong With a Six-Hour School Day?" by Kate Tuttle, an article in the summer 2005 issue (it arrived several weeks ago) of Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, pages 20-23.

* A profile of the Harlem Children's Zone Promise Academy Charter School that I found on Insideschools.org, an independent guide to New York City schools. I underlined these two sentences: "The school day goes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the school year runs through August. The after-school program for the elementary grades operates from 4 to 6 p.m., while middle and high school after-school activities run until 7:30 p.m."

I have been collecting school success stories for 22 years. It is my vocation (both old meaning, a calling from God, and new meaning, my job), and my avocation too. I cannot think of a single instance in which the improvement in achievement was not tied, at least in part, to an increase in the amount of time students had to learn.

My original informant on this issue, East Los Angeles mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante waved three fingers in the face of any student who was struggling in his class. That meant the young person was required to return to Escalante's classroom at 3 p.m., when the last bell rang, and spend three hours doing his homework and other useful exercises.

That way, Escalante stole three hours that the student would otherwise have used to watch cartoons or talk to his friends or do his chores or baby-sit his younger siblings. Three extra hours of study every day added up fast. It produced hundreds of confident young scholars in an inner city school where such people are not often found. (Schools in affluent neighborhoods do not face the same pressure to extend the school day because their students often have parents who insist they do their homework, no matter how long it takes.)

My most recent instructors on the benefits of a longer school day, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, created the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), the most successful group of inner-city middle schools in the country, after they saw what happened their first year of teaching when they kept many students after school. They were doing a terrible job as Houston elementary school teachers but discovered that if they extended their teaching time, and mixed in some after-school motivators such as visits to the local Boys' and Girls' Club, student achievement improved dramatically. That inspired the KIPP school day, which starts at 7:30 or 8 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m., plus some Saturday morning sessions and required summer school.

Stealing this much time from students' days is still rare in American public schools, which is too bad. Few people are actually against it. The benefits of increased time on task are well proven by educational research. Instead critics of the longer school day ask quite rightly, how are we going to pay for it?

I think the money will come if we start showing policymakers and taxpayers and everyone else we can reach how much better our schools are when they have more time. It will be necessary to tell them and show them this many, many times. People are stubbornly fond of the six-hour school day. It takes a long time to change the way we use time.

Let's examine more closely my little collection of clippings:

The Straight A's article cites a report by Indiana University's High School Survey of Student Engagement showing that 82 percent of more than 90,000 students said they wanted to enroll in some form of post-secondary education. The article noted that less than a third of them will actually do so and go on to get a degree.

Why is that? One reason, the report suggested, was that they were so unaccustomed to spending much time on their schoolwork in high school. About two-thirds of the students who said they spent three or fewer hours a week preparing for class said they received mostly A's and B's for that puny amount of time. Seventy-eight percent of the sample said three hours or less was all they spent reading assigned material each week. Even that was too much of a strain for about 20 percent of the group, who said they spent NO time on assigned readings.

Tuttle's article in Ed. focused on educators who have expanded the school day and year. Meg Campbell, who founded the Codman Academy Charter Public School in Boston's Dorchester section, said her classes go Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon.

Tuttle described the effect: "The schedule, Campbell says, not only provides time for students to learn the basic skills that some of them were lacking when they arrived, it also helps 'create a culture that's purposeful and academic and emphasizes character values.' Students spend so much time at the school that it tends to become the center of their social life."

The Insideschools.org report on the Promise Academy, which I found through a Google search after Tuttle's article mentioned it, said the school is offering classes in reading, math, science, history, Spanish, dance, music and arts five days a week. It is new, but the Web site's investigators said "on the day of our visit we saw a school working hard to establish a structure and tone for the students."

How much more do longer days cost? Escalante did not charge the Los Angeles Unified School District overtime for any of his late evenings. If he had, the invoice would have been greeted with laughter, as Escalante knew.

But some school districts and charter schools are paying teachers more for putting in longer days. Fairfax County gives teachers in its Excel program for low-income neighborhood elementary schools 7 percent more than what they would get at other schools because they work more hours each week. The KIPP organization pays its teachers for the extra hours they are working. A 2004 KIPP budget analysis said the longer hours added $469, or 13 percent, to a typical KIPP school's $3,625 annual per pupil cost for instructional salaries and benefits.

Thirteen percent is a big salary bump. Taxpayer associations would probably complain about it. School boards would worry about busting their budgets. But there are ways to plow through those barriers. To win such an increase, a school system would have to experiment with a model school and prove that those extra hours produced significantly better results, as KIPP, the Codman Academy, the Excel schools and other programs have done.

One topic that comes up repeatedly in education articles and debates is the need for higher salaries and more job satisfaction to lure and keep the best teachers. Creating a longer school day can solve both of those problems. More hours can mean more money for the teacher, and more achievement for that teacher's students, which is just about all a good teacher needs to be happy.

Time is powerful. If those of us who write and argue and theorize and lobby for better schools spent more of it asking for more of it, good things could happen.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company