Education: When more is less

The “more is always better” approach to instructional time is a  popular and destructive fetish among educational policy makers (and one that goes hand-in-hand with standardized testing, about which I have previously written on this site.)  First, right off the bat, can we debunk the myth that the rest of the world educates its children better because it spends much more time in the classroom?  Proponents of extended school days and longer school years love to point to other countries with more rigorous time requirements.  Do Japanese students go to school for more hours than their American counterparts?  Indeed they do.

But proponents of a more sane school calendar have their own international exemplars to point to.  Finland, for example, consistently scores near the top of the international PISA exams but students there only attend school between twenty and thirty hours a week (depending on the students’ age), have very little homework, and do not have a longer school year (they also take almost no standardized tests). The point is, all such comparisons between American students and their foreign counterparts are inherently tricky—you can cherry pick results enough to support almost any idea for school reform, and often, the testing populations are different enough that such comparisons aren’t valid to start with.

Tried, but not true

Yet, just as politicians and bureacrats have embraced the maxim of “more tests=better schools” (after all, if you weigh the cow more often, she’ll get bigger, right?) so too have they embraced the notion that American students have far too much free time and should be spending more time in school each day and more days in school each year.  In fact, in a political landscape polarized like never before, this is one idea that has true bi-partisan enthusiasm.  Currently, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel is in the process of introducing extended school days in Chicago’s public schools.  But he might do well to look at what happened when the same type of “reform” was implemented in Miami’s schools, which spent $100 million to add an hour onto the school day and 10 extra days onto the school calendar.  Studies concluded that there were no significant benefits in student learning.

But why not?  Why doesn’t more time equal more learning?  The answer is so simple that it might easily be overlooked:  the quality of the instruction is far more important than the quantity.  If students actually spent their time in school involved in interactive lessons that introduced and reinforced academic concepts in interesting, creative ways, then student learning would increase.  Simply toiling away another hour on a mind-numbing worksheet will not magically raise student achievement.  But it may well make them hate school.

What should we do about summer?

After all, another question to ask regarding whether or not to increase the hours students spend in school is: at what cost?  I’m not talking about dollars and cents here, but about the importance of children having time free to spend with their families and just be kids.  I’m not the only one asking this question. “Save Our Summers” organizations have sprouted up in many states, with the mission to “preserve the summer months for outside-the-classroom childhood and family learning experiences.”  Not all education should happen inside the walls of a traditional classroom, and summer vacation allows students, with their parents, to explore individual interests in-depth.   Time off also allows students to (gasp) relax and make their own fun.

Of course, the reality is that many parents don’t have the time to shuttle their kids to a drama workshop or science camp in the summer.  They’re too busy working two part-time jobs to take them on a hike in the woods or to go see a free jazz concert in the park.  And many of these parents live in neighborhoods that are unsafe—sending their children out to ride their bikes and wander the streets is not an option.  For this very reason, many parents support the idea of keeping their kids in school for longer and more days.  At least they’re safe and “doing something.”

This is a real dilemma for parents, but the answer is not to force kids back to the classroom for more and more instructional time.  It’s to offer free, thoughtful, and optional enrichment opportunities for these students that get children active, out into their community, and exploring things in a way they wouldn’t be able to during the regular school year.  Such summer enrichment opportunities would require money, energy, and creativity to develop, and they wouldn’t easily be measured by a tidy little standardized test at the end.

No easy answers

And therein lies the problem.  The appeal of “more days in school, more hours in the school day” is that it’s easy to understand and can be implemented in a straightforward way.  It’s a great applause line in a political speech about what’s wrong with education today.  But a great applause line is not sound educational policy, and American students shouldn’t have to give up part of their childhood because politicians are unwilling to engage in the difficult work of real education reform.


[Editor’s note: This post is  the second in City Mom’s three-part series on education. Other topics in the series are: “Evaluating teachers based on students’ scores is harmful,” and “What reasonable school reform would look like.” ]