Stretching Time for Schools

Longer days, longer school year may be long overdue

Anyone with school-age kids knows that a demanding schedule for education - classes, extracurricular activities, and homework - must run like clockwork.

And yet rarely, does it seem, are there enough hours to perform all these learning activities well.

Not to worry, say many educators and governors around the United States. Pushed by public demand to boost student performance on standardized tests, many schools are making the obvious adjustment: stretching class periods, school days, and even the school year.

The old school schedules of a bygone agrarian era (when children had real chores affecting family livelihood) are coming up short in the race for quality education.

But will merely increasing time spent at school bring an increase in learning? It can certainly help - if it's more than just time that's added.

Some elementary schools in the Washington, D.C., area have lengthened school days by an extra hour or more to give students, particularly those falling behind, remedial help with academic basics. Test scores at these schools have sharply risen.

The governors of California and Georgia are proposing a longer school year and school day for middle- schoolers, because the students' test scores have been particularly difficult to raise. The mayor of New York even wants Saturday classes.

But such quick fixes are rarely that simple. Teachers need to be enthusiastic participants. And if they put in more time, their pay needs to go up, with taxpayers footing the bill. Parents' schedules, including summer vacations, will need adjusting. Above all, any schedule changes should address the needs of kids themselves. A less frantic, more thoughtfully paced day would serve them well.

Many schools are reorganizing the school day into longer "blocks" of time per class, allowing students to go more in-depth on topics. In Minneapolis, high schools are starting the school day at 8:40 a.m. instead of 7:15 a.m. Such a later start better suits the late-to-bed-late-to-rise sleeping habits of most teenagers. Classes also end a little over an hour later, at 3:10 p.m.

This experiment in Minneapolis may soon become a model once it becomes clearer that such a schedule shift truly raises test scores. Some observers already see an improvement in grades. At the least, kids now generally don't show up for the first morning class acting like zombies.

It's worth noting that students in other countries - notably academic powerhouses like Japan and South Korea - spend many more hours and days at school than US children.

Adding class time for America's youth is probably long overdue.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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