March 13, 2007
A Longer School Day?
In some places in the US, as well as in the UK, schools are either considering or experimenting with extending school hours. In Massachusetts, the extended school day is suggested as a possible remedy for schools who fail to meet No Child Left Behind benchmarks. In the UK, extended school hours may remedy a lack of quality childcare, thus allowing parents to work longer hours without worrying where their children are.
But one has to look to the other side of the scale to see what is potentially being replaced by longer school hours. What purpose is being served by extending school hours to eight or ten hours a day? What roles are shifted between teachers and parents, between homes and schools?
There is a potential to use extended school days as a holding pen for kids in which teachers become baby sitters instead of educators. Creating meaningful, expanded and extended learning opportunities takes a lot of time, effort and care. Without the time and energy to prepare these lessons for students, teachers will likely take the route of least effort. The result might well be an extended recess period at the end of the day with little learning, lots of free time...and lots of opportunity for mischief. Free time in a place of learning is a recipe for disaster.
However, legislatively mandating how extended days are utilized would create just as many problems. By attempting to use extended days to improve test scores, governments may very well practice test students out of learning all together. Students already spend an inordinate amount of time practicing, taking and reviewing federally, state, and locally mandated standardized tests. Any person who asks his or her local high school just how many class periods this takes will probably be shocked. Imagine tossing an extra two or three hours of test preparation a day on top of that. Learning how to test is mind-numbingly boring for students and teachers. It tends to stifle creativity and focuses on number-based outcomes - usually measured in school and district passing percentage.
Perhaps to create a structure of useful learning activities for an extended school day it would be better to look at what is being replaced and what roles are shifted from the home to the school during an extended day. One could argue that open time to talk about the day's events around the dinner table (or the television or the computer, as the case may be) is missing. For that matter, a school day which ends at, say, 6pm may need a dinner around a table! Would teachers be required to play the role of mediator and thought-provoker around the extended school "dinner table"? Would it be reasonable to expect teachers to help students get a grasp of the world around them beyond what already takes place in the current school day?
Would parents, consequently, want to vet their teacher's views and methods more in an extended school environment, given that teachers may very well spend more time with their kids than they do? How would this be accomplished in the current public school system?
And, finally, who's to say that teachers would be willing to spend up to ten hours a day at school, caring for a surrogate family of students? Despite some mythical belief that teachers actually live underneath the stairwells of their schools, teachers actually do have families, friends and activities outside of the school hallways. How would they maintain their own life-work balance?
What the extended school day suggests is that there is not a "one size fits all" answer to publicly funded primary and secondary education. This, in turn, creates an issue which is, to say the least, very problematic. Parents who opt into, or depending on state legislation are forced into, this system would demand school choice, and rightly so. If a parent is going to put an ever increasing amount of trust and responsibility into an educational facility, it is only right that they would be able to choose that facility. This might be accomplished through open enrollment within a school district, school vouchers or through an interconnected system of charter schools. In an open market where educational dollars traveled with students, the ability to choose schools would allow parents to find options which fit their family's lives, beliefs and schedules. The challenge would then be for schools to evolve into what their communities needed them to be.
And that's the trick here. The system must become more open, more responsive to the local community. While schools can be mandated to extend their days and teachers can be paid more money, until there is either a general consensus on curricular particulars throughout public education or open choice of and competition between schools, more hours will not equate to better educated children.