December 6th, 2012
04:30 AM ET

My View: When it comes to a longer school day, something’s got to give

Courtesy Becky HaleBy Sam Chaltain, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Sam Chaltain is a Washington-based writer and education advocate. He can be found on Twitter at @samchaltain.

(CNN) – Now that five states are planning to add 300 hours of class time in an effort to close the achievement gap and re-imagine the school day, I can only come to one conclusion: Something’s got to give.

On one hand, the Time for Innovation Matters in Education Collaborative is a welcome chance for us to shake off the anachronistic trappings of the agrarian school calendar. After all, just because we went to school from August to June doesn’t mean our kids should, and just because we got out of school at 3 p.m. doesn’t mean that dismissal time is a good idea. In fact, for poor kids in poor communities, the period between 3 and 6 p.m. is the most dangerous time of the day. So I take great hope in the project’s intent to “empower each student with the knowledge, skills, and experiences essential for college and career success.”

And I admire any plan to expand the sorts of learning experiences students have during the day - and where (and how) the day unfolds. As the Ford Foundation’s Jeannie Oakes puts it, “More time must mean better time.”

On the other hand, the 40 schools participating in this project in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee, don’t exist in a vacuum, and here in America we still rank schools as successful or unsuccessful based on a single metric - standardized reading and math scores.  Knowing that, will these schools be able to follow through on their plans to explore academic content more deeply, provide teacher collaboration time more regularly and revitalize the arts more fully? Or will the extra hours be used to turn a small subset of “failing” schools into high-achieving ones?

It’s too soon to tell, of course, but as the work begins, we might want to pay attention to the stories of the world’s two highest-achieving school systems: those in Finland and Shanghai.

In Shanghai, students are in school for an average of nine hours a day - and driving improvement in test scores is the primary goal. As Peking University High School deputy principal and teacher Jiang Xueqin put it in an interview with NBC, “It’s a test-oriented education system, which means that students are taught from a very early age how to beat tests.”

That sort of focus is clearly a recipe for soaring scores. It also comes with a cost. “In terms of management, artistic, or creative talent, China’s tremendously lacking,” Jiang added. “That’s going to hamper China’s ability to compete globally - especially with the United States.”

By contrast, Finland has the world’s best system of public schools - and among the shortest school days. Students don’t even start their formal education until they turn 7, and the average day ends somewhere between noon and 2 p.m.

Unlike in America, however, Finland invests deeply in a social safety net for its citizens, has low rates of poverty and requires no national exams. “There's no word for accountability in Finnish,” said Pasi Sahlberg, one of the chief architects of Finland’s successful school reforms. “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”

Which of these two paths would you prefer for America’s schools? To me, there are valuable lessons in both: As in Shanghai, I think there is great value in lengthening the school day, as long as doing so is truly a way to help poorer kids experience the sorts of enrichment opportunities that richer kids take for granted. And as in Finland, there is great merit in re-imagining how we define success or failure in our schools.

We can do both - drive achievement and deepen the learning experience - but not without deciding which of the two is our primary goal, and not without making some changes that go a lot deeper than 300 extra hours a year.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sam Chaltain.

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soundoff (49 Responses)
  1. rgvg15

    The whole problem here is not one of how long school should or should not be. Its one of TEST results. We are always told of how bad our kids are when put up againest other countries. This is totally a lie!! I have friends in several other countries who are also in education. Why we test so low is not because are kids are any less smart , its because in almost all other countries they TRACK their kids and decide which are better suited for higher education and which are going to be more suited for other fields like crafts-builders, craftsmen ect. only their higher kids are tested. We on the other hand we test ALL our kids highest to those that are very low -special ed. ect. I want to see our top kids scores compared to theirs I totally believe we would be at the top of the heap. BTW I have been in education for 26 years now and have seen this coming for along time. The only reason they want longer school days is to keep inner city kids off the streets, and to keep your kids under the public school systems control longer.

    December 13, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Schooled

      For every child that is relegated to trade school, or a middle of the road prep school for continued education, there is another child that is elevated to a higher paced and more demanding curriculum. The fact that children receive a level of education that is tailored to their capabilities does nothing to diminish their test results. If anything, it is likely the biggest reason why they are able to grasp their material so well, and score higher on these tests.

      The lower scoring kids are NOT left behind, they are prepared to be successful after graduation, but within their capabilities. Not everyone is meant to go to college, trying to prep those that aren't capable, or willing is not doing anyone any good. Besides the world probably has more use for a good plumber then it does another lawyer or systems engineer.

      December 14, 2012 at 7:19 am |
  2. empresstrudy

    By the time they graduate high school the average South Korean student has spent TWO FULL YEARS more in class. US kids get 1050 class hrs which are increasingly burdened with less education time and more social work. So, good luck with that.

    December 12, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
  3. kimberly

    If we had more school time We should spend it on art P.E.,and FCS

    December 12, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
  4. Jay

    They should give poor/bad students time to do their homework at school where there are teachers and older students who can help them if they need help.
    At our elementary school only students with bad grades needed to stay longer so that the teacher could help these students to improve. All the other students with good grades where allowed to go home early and study in their own time.

    December 10, 2012 at 4:59 pm |
  5. sinsationalbulk

    Please do not make school longer. How bout cutting out some education that is wasteful? Longer hours doesnt mean they will retain it. I know that bout round 2pm you already thinking bout going home and the rest of the day just sucks. Allow these kids to be kids and and if they want more education go to college. The whole education system needs to be checked over. College and high school is a waste of classes that one may never need.

    December 10, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  6. msp

    OMG. NO wonder we are down in the dumps. I feel so hopeless after reading these comments and the article.

    December 10, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  7. S

    I'm a teacher. We do not need longer school hours. We need fewer students in a classroom.

    December 10, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • Teacher

      ^ This.

      December 11, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  8. H H

    Why should we have more school hours just because another country does? We've already got orders to do more math and science because China does.....despite the fact that most of those workers end up in low-paying manufacturing jobs. You end up stuffing kids' heads with knowledge that might be high knowledge, but that they'll personally never use. My state now requires two years of algebra and two years of geometry. How many people really USE geometry in life?

    I live in a blue-collar town where most kids won't go to college (and that doesn't mean they're dumb, either). The jobs are quite good (oilfiend work), but everybody is tracked into a college-prep program.

    High school used to be optional. Go back to the eighth grade system. Let high school be optional for those going to college, and let everyone else who isn't study a vocational trade.

    December 10, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • ironman59

      That is absolutely idiotic. HS is a needed level of education, without it you can't even get into most trade schools to get training on the service jobs. It also teaches basic life skills, socialization & responsibility for self discipline. More education, not less is what this country needs. With less education you have more welfare, more unwanted pregnancies, more of all of the things that hurt the country.

      December 11, 2012 at 10:22 am |
  9. merpia

    no.

    December 8, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • merpia

      OMG NO NO NO NO

      December 8, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  10. Shinevia

    No i have to say because we might need to go home and do other stuff yes you know more education to succeed in life but we need to go home and do other stuff then school, work, etc..

    December 8, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
  11. jake2247

    Reading these responses, it's completely obvious that more schooling is needed. Many of these posters are completely ignorant of spelling, punctuation, and grammar. "We should get time tooking away not added", etc.

    December 8, 2012 at 6:13 pm |
  12. Mom of 2

    The schools would have plenty of time to teach if they did away with so much of the other garbage that they spend time and money on. Between anti-bullying seminars, fundraising assemblies, mobile dentists, etc., the focus is no longer on educating our students. The schools and government have decided that they want to step up and be the parent and fulfill all of the duties of parenting, and it's redicuous. Schools are supposed to teach. Period. I am sooo tired of hearing about the education gap–the people in those situations need to step up and take some responsibility for their action and inaction. I came from a rough neighborhood, went to schools that would now be considered "poor performing", and managed to find a way to college. it is NOT the school's responsibility to provide for every need of the child–the family and community need to step up so our school's can return to their primary mission. I would agree that our education system is broke–we continue to lower the standards so that everyone can meet them. We need to look at how we teach and what we teach long before we add any more hours to the school day. Just consider, most home schooled kids accomplish comparable lessons in just a few hours per day.....how do you justify that the rest of the kids need more time?

    December 7, 2012 at 1:14 pm |
    • Monica

      I agree, except the anti-bullying. I wish parents would teach their kids not to bully kids, speak up for others and themselves, but they don't. As for other stuff...I completely agree. Stop wasting time with that and teach. They don't even have extra time to help boost my daughter's math score, but time for the other stuff...dumb!

      December 10, 2012 at 11:33 am |
  13. tiedyedeb

    I think it entirely depends on what is going to be done with the extra time. Are we talking more drill & kill? Not in favor of that – too much goes on already! Are we talking about putting the arts and physical activity, which are being cut short or cut entirely to make more time for test prep, BACK into the day, and/or providing enrichment activities, and/or taking the time to teach deeply and meaningfully instead of slapdash dry lessons (to make more time for test prep)? That might be another story entirely.

    It also makes sense to consider the school, the students, and the neighborhood: some neighborhoods aren't safe after school, so keeping kids in school might actually be keeping them safer, while in other places that might not be such a concern. Students with jobs is definitely something to consider for high schoolers; that should definitely be taken into account when putting something like this in place – but remember, the majority of kids this will affect will be elementary and middle schoolers for whom after-school jobs aren't an issue in the vast majority of cases.

    In short, I wouldn't nix the idea out of hand. I can see how it could be very beneficial to students and to schools. I can also see, though, how the extra time could be used in ways that would only make everyone miserable. :-\

    December 7, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  14. Kiana

    I love my teachers and watching CNN student news everyday in class, but I think we have enough school time.

    December 7, 2012 at 12:08 am |
  15. Hailey

    I think longer school days would be a bad idea because as a 13 year old I like my free time. Longer school days wouldn't allow that because we also have homework and studying. So no....Personally I am not a fan of the idea

    December 6, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  16. Maddie

    I'm a bit torn.....I personally think it would be a GREAT idea for students that can't quite seem to make ends meet during school hours...But at the end of the day, it would make us even more exhausted from a long day at school. ESPECIALLY for the ones who have reasonable grades, and are on our "A" game.

    December 6, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
  17. sargon

    I think students should not have more of school time, because kid and teens have trouble getting out of bed because the did not finish there homework or they waited to finish something they were watching. I think that extra time should be spent on playing a sport or just relaxing at home. :)

    December 6, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
  18. Brandon

    If my school added the extra time I would want to spend it doing homework. If kids can do their homework at school then they'll have less stress making them like school better. I don't think they should add the extra time unless kids used their time this way. Less homework and a little more school work = Less stress and kids will pay better attention to their lesson.

    December 6, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
    • Monica

      Extra time to do homework at school is an excellent idea...especially if it is difficult for them and the parents have a hard explaining it to them. That is the only way I would like the extra time at school. They need to be able to be with their families too.

      December 10, 2012 at 11:35 am |
    • H H

      I never had homework when I was in school. Why? Because I did it AT school. I worked on my math assignment when I was finished with my work in English class. I worked on assignments during lunch, while everyone else gossiped. I worked on the bus on the way home.

      I had a job after school, and didn't have time for homework. I managed to get it all done. You can, too.

      December 10, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
      • anna

        Yes I totally agree with you.
        The problem today is that kids have too many distractions, cell phones, computers and parents that just dont care if they learn or not.

        I know for a fact that some American children dont even know where Canada is! And they want to cut lessons?

        December 12, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
      • Lady

        It is great that you were able to finish your homework at school and on the bus, but not everyone is capable of doing that. There are students that struggle with homework and need extra time/help. Also, it is against the rules here to work on homework on the bus.

        I am against a longer day. I do not believe it will benefit the students who are already tired by the end of the current school day. Aside from this, are the representatives taking into account how much more it is going to cost to have a longer day? The power that will be used, the cost of snacks that will need to be provided, the extended teacher's contract, this all adds up to a lot more money, that the already struggling school systems can not afford.
        Family time? Family time may be seriously affected too. Children will be getting home around 5 or even later, by the time dinner is cooked, eaten and cleaned up, it may be close to 7. Homework(if that is not allotted in the new extended hours) could easily take until 9, and then bath and to bed...where is the family time, except during the meal? I think the powers to be need to re-evaluate their ideas and look for a better solution.

        December 17, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  19. Olivia

    I think we shouldn't because we would have less time to do homework and relax. The teachers probably wouldn't like it either. I mean they have family and stuff to grade. It would be a waste of time and if we did have another hour and a half more of school then we should not have any school on Monday. :)

    December 6, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
  20. Lauren

    I feel that extra time in school is a good idea; however it does increase the chances of students dropping out. I believe that the internship classes would students good, I personally have had a internship and I believe that if everyone had that opportunity, that we would have greater chances at getting a better job later on in our future.

    December 6, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  21. Wasik

    I think students should spend the extra time on playing sports or other activities. This way students will not get bored for staying at school longer. They can have fun and learn something new this way. And its not just doing physical activity. They should do whatever they are interested in. For example, some people like to read books, some like to play football or soccer, some like to run around on the track etc.

    December 6, 2012 at 4:42 pm |
  22. Wasik

    i think we should spend the extra time on sports or other activities (only if Obama increases the school hours). That way students will not get bored about staying at school longer. They can have fun and learn something new by doing this. And its not only about playing sports or doing physical activities. S

    December 6, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  23. Katelyn

    Honestly,We should get time tooking away not added . Even though some people are overweighted .which they can't help . &, we need more time in gym . Many people will also be dropping out of school & more people will be unemployed.

    December 6, 2012 at 4:32 pm |
    • H H

      You need a literacy class. Your grammar and spelling are atrocious. Tooking is not a word.

      December 10, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  24. snugihsyoufnighdfughareksghnrojhgayjngsiogh

    hi

    December 6, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  25. dom&chris

    We think that extra hours should be used for more physical edacation. To help those who are overweight and obese.

    December 6, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • H H

      Not every kid is fat. PE is a reason why so many people hate to exercise. It's boring.

      December 10, 2012 at 1:51 pm |
  26. Will

    i think that it would help but what if people want to go home or actually have a job i think it should be an elective

    December 6, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
  27. Trenton

    I would like to have art longer.

    December 6, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  28. Eli

    I would like to spend it on things like band or study halls to fill up the extra time, since we have enough time during the normal part of the day to have classes earlier in the day.

    December 6, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
  29. Gianna

    we don't need longer school days!!! I feel that it would do more bad than good. Kids would want to drop out and they'd probably just get annoyed over the fact that they had to be there longer and just not even pay attention to the class. I'd do my core class homework first and then MAYBE if i had time i'd do the other homework. NO LONGER SCHOOL DAYS!!!

    December 6, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  30. Dustin

    I would absolutely love to use an extra hour or so of my day. I love playing my instruments and love drama. I am very with this idea. I love it!

    December 6, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  31. Daniel

    Well the kids that wanna do this then they will stay after school but if kids do want to then they dont have to not every kid in highschool needs a job or even wants a job.

    December 6, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  32. Gianna

    no no no no please no no no!!!!! no longer school no no no!!!!!

    December 6, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  33. Sandy

    More time means better time...not a chance of that happening. It will become a drill and kill session giving kids more of what they already hate, boring, irrelevant garbage. Talk about agrarian habits. We offer the 2012 students 1912 pabulum. Get a grip, educ-wonkers. The traditional approach looks silly and outdated to today's student. And it all depends upon the will and motivation by the student for learning to occur. School has become a holding tank for young minds to survive until set free into the world where they can discover meaningful endeavors in work or independent learning. We could offer them relevant learning, but that would mean most of the admin levels would have no purpose, the DOE would be unnecessary and materials discarded to be replaced by online access for every student, fewer teachers and relevant project-based learning models put into place for individual needs and skills to be honed on a pace of the students' choices. Nirvana for learning. We don't have the will or desire to create schools like that because the bottom line would not line the pockets of those who aren't really necessary in the system and control would switch from those on high to the clients schools serve...the students and teachers. No, not gonna happen.

    December 6, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • ThePossibilities

      I agree that the cattle herd school system needs to change. The agrarian calendar and the one-size-fits-all of 30 kids in a class is clearly not effective. We are certainly seeing examples of innovation that are helping people learn. There was a recent article about a teacher using rap music as a way to teach science. Interesting as a tool, but wonder about the misogynistic message of the rap culture. Society has enough ills.

      Home-schooling is also not done in a vacuum but with a network of other homeschoolers to supply socialization as well as teachers/parents with specialties. A good friend's eldest is home-schooled while the other two prefer public schooling. All are over-achieving students because of the culture of learning taught in the home.

      Here is where I find a dearth in the American main stream culture (I'm not an imigrant by the way). There just doesn't seem to be a cultural emphasis on learning, personal improvement, and personal responsibility.

      This country was founded on the concept of personal independence and personal responsibility: a "No-one-tells-me-what-to-do" mentality and an "I'll-do-it-myself" sense of pride. How sad that a not-insignificant segment of the population of this most fortunate country feels the government is responsible for their lives.

      December 10, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  34. Marie

    I think that kids should not have to do that much schooling

    December 6, 2012 at 8:55 am |