Efforts to extend school day, year reignite debate

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011

Many educators in the Washington area and across the nation are pushing for a seemingly simple solution to lagging student performance: Keep students in school longer.

Some officials want a longer school day; others, a shorter summer break. The common argument is that more time in class would probably result in more teaching, more learning and, eventually, more-skilled graduates better able to cope in an increasingly competitive world.

But these initiatives - favored by President Obama and floated in recent months by officials in the District, Prince George's County and Alexandria - have run into more immediate political realities. Budgets are tight. Rules are restrictive. And some parents have balked at locking more of their children's lives into structured activities.

The fight brewing in Alexandria has some of these elements. Superintendent Morton Sherman has proposed extending the calendar by starting classes a week before Labor Day, an idea up for a School Board vote Thursday night. He also favors a longer school day, which might come to a vote later in the year.

"My position is really straightforward," Sherman said. "First, quality teachers matter in kids' lives. Second, time matters. Whether it's 10 minutes or 300 hours, time spent with a quality teacher makes a difference. That's irrefutable."

But many parents, teachers and students complained about his proposals at a School Board meeting last week. Even if the board approves the earlier start date for classes, state officials would have to approve it under a Virginia law that calls for summer vacation to last until after Labor Day.

"The kids are already hitting that saturation point," said Cindy Anderson, whose son is a senior at T.C. Williams High School. "Even if they're struggling, more time in the classroom might not be the solution."

The typical school day is about 61/2 hours. Some well-regarded charter schools, such as those run by the Knowledge Is Power Program, have had success improving student performance with longer days as well as mandatory weekend or summer sessions.

Initiatives to extend learning time have been particularly common in districts with high poverty rates and high percentages of minority students. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, found that there were more than 300 such initiatives in 30 states between 1991 and 2007.

Under Obama, the idea has gained even more momentum in some reform circles. His administration has argued that more time in class is essential to helping the United States compete with countries such as South Korea that have higher international test scores.

The research, however, is inconclusive. Harris Cooper, a psychology professor at Duke University who has studied school calendars, said the most important issue is how the hours are spent.

"Additional time can have an positive impact," Cooper said. "But the added time has to be significant enough to change the way instruction is delivered. That's the collective wisdom of those who have studied the issue."

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