Make School Day Work Smarter, Not Longer

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

Suppose a provincial health minister announced that the best way to improve health care is to lengthen the average time each patient spends with his or her physician. Millions of dollars are then allocated to cover the expenses associated with extending the hours of medical clinics across the province. Would it be considered an effective reform?

The correct answer is, “It depends.” If there was clear evidence that patient health was being compromised because visits with their physicians were too short, then longer visits might make sense. However, a mandatory lengthening of visits could just as easily lead to more time spent on small talk without improved patient care. It is more important to use existing time efficiently than to mandate longer visits.

Education reformers would be wise to take the same principle of efficiency and apply it to public education. All too often, proposed reforms are implemented whether warranted by the evidence or not. Lengthening the school day is one such reform. It pops up with regularity, particularly in the United States.

As a case in point, five American states recently announced plans to add at least 300 hours of instructional time to some of their schools each year. The three year pilot program will involve more than 40 schools and a total of approximately 20,000 students. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a long-time advocate of longer school days, hailed this initiative as a “critical investment” that will prepare students for success in the 21st century.

The demand for longer school days finds support among some Canadian politicians as well. In the recent Quebec election, Francois Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Quebec, proposed the addition of one extra hour to the school day for all secondary students. Under his proposal, high school students would be required to be in school from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every weekday. He suggested the extra hour could be used for homework or extracurricular activities.

Interestingly, the main reason Legault offered for a longer school day had little to do with improving student achievement. Rather, he focused on the need to synchronize the school day with the workdays of their parents. He suggested that keeping students at school longer could prevent them from getting into trouble when their parents are still at work.

However, before we jump on the longer school day bandwagon, it makes sense to ask whether the promise lives up to its hype. Do jurisdictions with more instructional time outperform jurisdictions where students spend less time in school?

They do not. For counter evidence we can look to Finland, a country whose students consistently receive some of the highest reading scores in the world on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Finnish students spend less time in school than students in most other countries. School days are shorter, students attend fewer days, and compulsory schooling only begins at age 7. The Finland example shows that academic success is possible without making students spend more time in school.

Lengthening the school day is a superficial solution to a more fundamental problem. While it is true that students who spend more time on task usually experience greater success, there is no evidence that simply lengthening the school day results in more time on task. In other words, administrators should make better use of their existing time first before trying to add more hours to the school day.

For example, students would be more successful at math if teachers taught basic math facts and standard algorithms instead of the nebulous “new math” methods imposed by provincial curriculum guides. Similarly, reading levels would improve dramatically if students had more background knowledge about what they were reading. Unfortunately, most English Language Arts curriculum guides are virtually empty of content.

As Mike Schmoker points out in his book Focus, schools need a stronger focus on the essentials. If every school had a reasonably coherent curriculum, sound lessons, and purposeful reading and writing in every discipline, student achievement would improve. Unfortunately, schools are often distracted by initiatives that have little or nothing to do with their core mandate, taking time away from the essentials of learning.

If something isn’t working, spending more time doing the same unproductive thing is unlikely to result in improvement. Schools should make better use of the time they currently have before adding more hours to the school day.