This is a response to a post I published Tuesday by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University, about what he called an “absurd” debate about how long the school year should be. He noted that there is no compelling evidence that a longer school year improves student learning. Here is a response to this post jointly written by Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of the National Center on Time & Learning, and Emily McCann, president of Citizen Schools.

By Jennifer Davis and Emily McCann

There is perhaps no more eloquent statement on the essential link between time and learning than the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, which delivered its report in April 1994.  In its highly-quotable declaration, the commission makes very clear that unless the education system is completely reconfigured around the objective of achieving proficiency, rather than meeting arbitrary time requirements, we will never reach the goal of serving all children well. In the commission’s words:

 “Learning in America is a prisoner of time. For the past 150 years, American public schools have held time constant and let learning vary. The rule, only rarely voiced, is simple: learn what you can in the time we make available…. If experience, research, and common sense teach nothing else, they confirm the truism that people learn at different rates, and in different ways with different subjects. But we have put the cart before the horse: our schools and the people involved with them-students, parents, teachers, administrators, and staff-are captives of clock and calendar. The boundaries of student growth are defined by schedules for bells, buses, and vacations instead of standards for students and learning.”

In a blog post Tuesday on The Answer Sheet, Mark Phillips, a professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University, argues very much the same point, when he notes that discussions about the “right” length of the year amounts to “the tail wagging the dog.” Instead, as he notes:

“We do need to think about time, but in a different way. If we think in terms of concepts and skills, the variable of time takes on a new dimension. If we addressed this effectively, we’d probably find that some courses should be longer than other courses. But of course we don’t do that. Quick amputations or expansions avoid that complex analysis and restructuring. This is typical of how we make educational decisions.”

And while Phillips correctly diagnoses the disease, we believe he misses the mark with a prognosis for a solution. He suggests that if schools are configured to impart a certain body of knowledge and develop a particular set of skills in students, then time is not a critical lever – that the arbitrary designations of school day and year length are irrelevant to how much students can learn.  As he claims, “The key variables in learning are student motivation and teacher skills. Neither are functions of the amount of time devoted to a subject.”

Not only is that statement factually wrong — a number of research studies have proven a definitive link between quantity of time and level of proficiency— it also ignores the social realities of this country.  There are millions of students for whom the current school year and day are not sufficient to reach those learning goals that we have for them. Surely, they need good teachers and they need to be motivated, but they also do need more time to internalize content and to practice skills; they need more opportunities to apply their knowledge and to collaborate with their peers. For them, time is highly relevant.

 We absolutely agree that learning -- not “seat time” — should drive how the school system operates, but we also recognize that there are many schools across the country that simply cannot help students reach the high standards we’ve set for them without more time.  Phillips draws a comparison between learning time in Finland to learning time in the U.S. in his post.  In Finland, teacher time is configured quite differently in order to better impact student achievement. 

Also, in many of the highest performing countries students spend significantly more time in school than in the United States.

A more relevant comparison might be how much time is spent in school in the U.S. on average (about 1,200 hours annually) versus how much time students spend in school at some of the high-achieving expanded time schools serving high poverty students across the country.

At KIPP schools, a network of charter schools well-known for helping students in underserved communities succeed, students spend closer to 1,750 in schools annually. At expanded-time schools that partner with Citizen Schools, students spend approximately 1,600 hours in school annually and student achievement scores are on the rise as a result. The educators at these and other high-performing expanded- time schools will be the first to tell you that the extraordinary results they are seeing would not be possible without more time. 

We also agree that, in order for more time to be effective, students must have the kind of learning experiences that engage them and help them understand why school is relevant. The irony is that without more time most schools have had to squeeze out the kind of hands-on, project-based learning that gets kids excited about school.  More time, in most cases, allows schools the opportunity to offer students the kind of classes and learning opportunities  - the “coordinated student internships and community based learning experiences” for which Phillips advocates - that they love.  Children who come from families with resources often pay for these kinds of programs during the afternoon and summer hours when school is not in session.  This is not an option for students in high poverty communities, so quality schools with adequate time offer their only chance for educational success.

As a nation, we must be willing to support schools that have added time to their existing schedules so that their students who need that extra time can reach the high expectations we hold. It is true that some schools that have added more learning time have not achieved the results that they had hoped for, but there are also a great number of schools that have used more time effectively as a catalyst to drive school transformation and student results. Now, we must stop quibbling over whether or not time should be used as a resource and learn from the expanded time practitioners who have used that resource well. We are pleased that more and more districts agree.



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