Last week’s New York Times hosted a short debate about whether it would be wise to lengthen the traditional school day. Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone—you may have seen him in a popular American Express ad—responded with an avid yes. Vicki Abeles—who produced 2009’s “Race to Nowhere,” a documentary that catalogues the tribulations of America’s cadre of overworked, résumé-building teens—provided perhaps the staunchest espousal of the opposite view. The debate quickly laid out a number of the arguments that have been animating education reformers on both sides of the issue.
Recent years have seen a growing emphasis on the notion that America’s children should be spending more time in school. This is not surprising. Americans have grown familiar with the sound bite that, in comparison to their peers abroad, U.S. students are performing at mediocre levels. More and more Americans have been introduced to the concept of summer learning loss, and advocates of a longer school day have not shied away from reminding the country that the traditional school calendar was designed to accommodate a “nation of farmers,” as President Obama put it in 2009.
The drive to extend the school day has gained traction in a number of states. Massachusetts, for instance, has since 2005 been operating its trendsetting Expanded Learning Time (ELT) Initiative, a public-private program that aims to add 300 annual hours to the calendars of participating schools. Like comparable initiatives across the country, ELT does not place its faith exclusively in extra hours. The point of the program, rather, is to combine additional learning time with a systematic redesign of the structure and content of the school day.
Cost is a prime mover in nearly any discussion of expanded learning time. In what follows, though, I want to call attention to three other considerations that ought to be a part of the debate.
There’s the obvious question of whether learning time should be expanded for all students, or only for certain (underperforming) groups. Paul Reville—Massachusetts’s Secretary of Education—suggested in the Times’s debate that, considering current financial constraints, additional education time should be allocated “where it’s most needed: low-income children and those with special learning challenges like English language learners or students with disabilities.” Reville’s suggestion brings to mind a particular risk, namely, that any extension of the school day that applies only to underperforming students will have the effect of alienating particular groups of children. Indeed, one can imagine a situation in which “competent” children—often, those whose parents have the resolve and ability to invest in their kids’ academic success—depart from school at the traditional hour, leaving poor, non-native, and disabled students to wonder why they don’t get to go home as well. The point here is simply that any extension of the school day that does not apply across the board runs the risk of transforming in a negative way how certain children understand themselves and their place in the world.
Any policy that affects the length of the school day will also affect the opportunities and constraints that determine what families can and cannot do. At the most basic level, any extension of the school day will provide working parents with additional time to earn money while limiting the time they can spend in the company of their children. The school calendar plays an important role in structuring the social and economic life of the family unit, a fact that ought not to be neglected.
There is also the broader question of what an extended school day would say about the values that undergird American education. A longer school day might signal that the U.S. is serious about enhancing the prospects of its citizens, or that it is committed to providing poor students access to the same kinds of tutoring opportunities, enrichment activities, and social experiences that middle- and upper-class parents routinely purchase for their children in the market. But the gulf between saint and sinner is sometimes small, and a longer school day might also say something different. It might, for instance, reify the already entrenched view that standardized, institutional education counts for more than any sort of informal or autodidactic learning. A related concern is that—by choosing expanded learning time over other, more qualitative solutions to the deficiencies of our education system—we might betray an underlying lack of imagination. The idea that more schooling will enhance learning outcomes bears an awkward resemblance to the notion that additional money will amplify happiness; both points of view seem to reflect an unwillingness to work creatively with the material already at hand.