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Do we need a longer school day?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

From President Obama to Arlene Ackerman, the the call for a longer school day has been raised as a component of school reform. It’s an issue in contract negotiations here and across the country.

I don’t know about you, but when that last bell rings my tank is pretty much empty. And my 8th graders, who suffered from post-lunch attention deficit syndrome, weren’t exactly in high learning mode either. Still, given the clear needs of so many of our students, I’m open to any argument that promises to improve student learning.

Proponents of a longer school day point to other countries that have longer school days and/or school years that appear to correlate with greater academic achievement. The experience of some charter schools, notably KIPP, that have incorporated a longer days is also frequently cited. These schools, which have boosted student achievement as measured by standardized tests, argue that a longer day is necessary to make up the deficit so many urban students have in reading and math.

Much of the research in this area suggests that quality needs to take precedence over quantity. There is plenty of room for increasing quality learning time in the existing school day. One study found that students were on task for about a third of the hours spent in school. These findings suggest that a focus on improving the delivery and quality of instruction would be a better investment than lengthening the school day.

Like so many proposals the devil is in the details. An additional hour spent on small group instruction for remediation or enrichment is one thing. (Many teachers already do this in one form or another.) Whole group instruction with the full burden of preparation and monitoring is quite another.

Will a longer day be used for mind numbing test prep or will it open the way for some more creative approaches to enhancing student learning? As usual, teachers have not been involved in discussions of what a longer school day might look like and what purposes it might serve.

And let’s be clear on one thing. If teachers are asked to work a longer day, they should be paid for it. This is elementary fairness. Base pay should be increased proportionate to the increase in the length of the day. According to PFT President Jerry Jordan the District is calling for a longer day without additional compensation.

At the same time the union should not reject a longer day out of hand. AFT president Randi Weingarten, in responding to President Obama’s education initiatives, wrote on Huffington Post, “As with any public policy, the devil is in the details, and this time around teachers will play a role in fleshing out the details of President Obama’s plans. The AFT stands ready to work with the president to make America the leader in public education.”

Teachers, and concerned parents, students, and community leaders need to weigh in to maximize the chance for a positive resolution of this issue. We need real solutions not another quick fix.

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