It has been championed by everyone from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to President Barack Obama; they claim that more instructional time will benefit our children. They want to lengthen the school day and school year in order to enhance education, but many suspect that this has more to do with occupying students’ time and placating busy parents who yearn for school days and years that mirror their own working schedules; however, we must question whether the quantity of school hours and days will do anything to meaningfully impact what our children learn.
Not all school districts and leaders are on board with this. Many states require a different number of hours in a day and days in a year. In Minnesota, for example, school districts follow the less is more philosophy. While New York has a mandated 180 school days (thirty states use this number), Minnesota only requires 156 days. While these are instructional days, the other days are used for professional development for teachers to get them truly ready for the classroom each year. The state reasons that if teachers are more prepared when they are in contact with students that the quality of instruction will be increased. Minnesota is not the only state in which this is happening.
Here in New York it is becoming increasingly clear that extended school hours are also seen as childcare by anxious parents who cannot be home when school ends. While there are many after school programs, these do cost money and there is a desire for “free” opportunities, which sadly have little to do with enhancing instruction. In many schools where it is a challenge to teach during regular school hours because of discipline, overcrowding, and funding, how can we believe that more time will result in anything that resembles quality?
As an educator who has been in many schools as a visiting observer and also as an administrator, I can tell you that there is just too much down time. Quality has to do with school culture and environment, and there has to be an attitude that when the bell rings education begins. Sadly, that is far from the truth in many places. In Minnesota the goal is to start teaching when that bell rings and make every minute count. With well prepared teachers utilizing every minute as instruction time, there is overwhelming quality where quantity does not have to enter the equation.
There is an urban legend of more class time and longer school years adding to educational quality. So called experts note Japan, South Korea, and China as prime examples of this, but one only has to look at how many students from those countries are clamoring to study in our universities and secondary, middle, and elementary schools. It seems clear that those parents in those countries who can manage it will send their children here, where we have shorter semesters and school years.
Quality in the classroom has always been an intangible element that can be questioned in any building in any city in any country in the world. What exactly is “quality” when it comes to the classroom? The answer is multivalent, for educators are individuals with styles as unique as each of their students are. However, when you walk into a classroom and find teachers who engage students, who connect what they are learning to real world applications, and who are manifesting a student-centered model that allows their charges to explore, learn, and expand their abilities, you are experiencing quality.
I have seen some teachers do more with ten minutes than others can in a week, and I think that is the key. It is like a baseball player trying to hit a baseball. You can show someone how to swing a bat a thousand times, but there are those who will strike out and those who will hit .300, and this has to do with talent as much as it has to do with dedication. Teachers have to be fully invested, know what they are doing, and constantly be involved in their own learning process. Gone are the days when a teacher graduates with a degree, goes into a classroom, shuts the door, and spends a career teaching. Now we are in a global community to which the teacher needs to be connected as he or she broadens horizons and continually explores subject matter.
There are no easy answers in education, but the idea of adding more instructional time is like putting a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. Lengthening school days and the school year are popular concepts, but they are no panacea for what is wrong in the classroom. If students are receiving less than ideal instruction six hours a day, does it make any sense to increase that to seven or eight hours a day? Here we will find the more is less scenario that will be detrimental to our students, cost more money, and do nothing to solve the problems we face in education today.
What we need to do now is to set into motion “quality control” in education that will need everyone’s involvement – state commissioners of education, superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents – in order for it to succeed. We have to make a national commitment to seek an every minute counts philosophy in the classroom. We have to ensure that teacher-student contact hours are meaningful, and we must realize that teachers need to be properly prepared in order to implement quality instruction.
Lengthening school days and years actually can be an impediment to the process of teacher development. Many teachers take courses after school and during the summer, and this will not be possible if the school day and year are longer. Of course, in places as diverse as Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Finland, shorter school years provide more time for teacher development, and students in all these places are actually doing better than many of their counterparts in states and nations requiring longer school days and years.
Most everyone I know wants the best for our children and for them to get the most out of their scholastic experience. It is time for us to examine what happens in the classroom and do our best to make precious hours count. Quality verses quantity is an age-old controversy, but in the end I believe most of us would take the best over the most, and that has to be the way to approach what will be happening in our schools now and in the years to come.
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