Will a longer school day help close the achievement gap?
A longer school day can help improve student test scores, closing the achievement gap. But critics question the cost of those additional hours.
Going to school from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. may sound like a student's nightmare, but Sydney Shaw, a seventh-grader at the Alain Locke Charter Academy on Chicago's West Side, has come to like it – as well as the extra 20 or so days that she's in class a year.Skip to next paragraph
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"I'm sure every kid at this school says bad things about the schedule sometimes," says Sydney, who was at school on Columbus Day, when most Chicago schools had a holiday. "But deep down, we all know it's for our benefit."
Finding ways to give kids more classroom time, through longer hours, a longer school year, or both, is getting more attention. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan support a lengthier timetable. Many education reformers agree that more time at school is a key step.
Charter schools like Alain Locke and KIPP schools (a network of some 80 schools that are often lauded for their success with at-risk students) have made big gains in closing gaps in student achievement, partly through expanded schedules. Other schools have been making strides, too – notably in Massachusetts and in the New Orleans system.
"If you want to look at schools where [the achievement gap is narrowing], they're saying they couldn't do it without the added time," says Jennifer Davis of the National Center on Time & Learning in Boston. "Even when you get good teachers into schools, you need added time."
According to studies, low-income students lose more than two months of reading skills over the summer. One conclusion from the studies: More than half the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students can be accounted for by the differential in summer learning opportunities.
"It's over the summer months that disadvantaged kids fall behind," says Karl Alexander, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "If you have parents who themselves didn't succeed in school and aren't highly literate, kids aren't going to get those skills at home."
Some skeptics say that while extended learning time sounds great, adding hours and days to the school year can be hugely expensive. By itself, they say, it will accomplish little: If the school is already falling short, more time there won't help anyone.
"It's not a turnaround strategy," says Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector, an independent think tank. "If you extend time in schools that ... lack good teachers and lack good curriculum ... that's the worst thing you could do."