Two hundred years ago, kids in American cities attended school year-round, with a brief summer recess that allowed families to escape the sweltering cities for breezy relief in the country. Children in rural areas studied in summer and winter, when they weren’t planting or harvesting crops. School days ended at 3 p.m. so kids could go off to work to help support their families.
Now child labor is illegal, air conditioning is plentiful, and modern families feature both moms and dads who typically work until 5 p.m. Why, then, do American kids get two months off in summer and leave school at 3 p.m. every day?
This is a question that bedevils advocates for longer school days and years, who point to mounting evidence that connects more education time with smarter kids.
But now, some advocates are trying a different approach by building a case that’s centered around parents. If schools updated their archaic schedules to sync with the schedules of 70 percent of parents who work 8 to 5, they would boost the economic fortunes of families, and in consequence, the US economy, argues the Washington-based, liberal think tank Center for American Progress (CAP) in a recent analysis.
“There is a huge benefit to kids’ academic gains of having parents be able maintain stable employment,” says Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy at CAP. She’s also a harried mother to two elementary-age kids whose school schedules inspired the analysis. “And I think the intermittent days off, the frequent days off, the early school closings actually make it pretty hard for parents to hold down jobs,” says Ms. Brown.
The cost of school
CAP calculated that not matching school calendars with the work requirements of American parents makes the US economy lose out on $55 billion a year. Included in that calculation is the lost income of mothers of elementary school children who opt to stay home while the kids are young.
One million fewer mothers work full time when their kids are in elementary school than in high school, Brown says.
The analysis also accounts for wages lost by hourly workers who have to take time off for every school closing. Of those, there are 29 days on average across the country, not including summer break. This adds up to 14 days more than the average private-sector worker’s paid time off.
“This issue has a much more profound impact on society than the very meritorious issue of kids learning how to read and write,” says Chris Gabrieli, a Massachusetts-based education reformer and founder of the National Center on Time and Learning, a nonprofit that advocates for more school time, particularly in poor areas.
Mr. Gabrieli’s organization has helped expand learning time in about 140 schools across Massachusetts. One statewide, publicly funded program has stretched the day by as much as 1.5 hours at 30 schools in poor neighborhoods, where most parents can’t afford after-school tutors and summer math camp. “Schools serving high-poverty kids should run the hours that those kids need,” says Gabrieli. As a consequence, this would also help their parents financially, he argues.
CAP’s analysis of the largest school districts in the country supports this. The think tank found that America’s school schedules disproportionately affect black, Latino, and low-income families, who are more likely to work inflexible, hourly-wage jobs without paid time off.
To cover the costs of child care for the days or hours schools close, or when a child is sent home due to illness, families have to spend about $6,600 a year, based on the average hourly wage – $10.72 – of a US babysitter, CAP estimates. For a family earning $70,000 a year, this amounts to 9 percent of its income. But for a family earning $29,000 a year, “child care is simply out of reach,” CAP authors write.
Paying for a longer day
As the principal of Goldie Maple Academy in Queens, NY, a K-8 school, Angela Logan-Smith is the face of change spreading through some schools across the country.
Ms. Logan-Smith turns giddy when she describes the schedule she and her faculty introduced last year at the decade-old, application-only, majority black school. By assigning teachers to specific subjects so that students have a different teacher for every class, like in high school, Goldie Maple was able to stagger teachers’ workdays to extend the school day for students by more than two hours without making teachers work more. In fact, while students still have their five-day week with more hours of learning, all school staff work only four days a week, though they're longer.
The idea for the extended schedule arose because students weren’t showing up for an after-school program, so they were missing the math tutoring and music classes they needed to round out their education. “We would spend a lot of money for teachers to stay there with the low attendance,” Logan-Smith says. “We had to find a way to get the arts and academic programs infused into the day.”
Goldie Maple diverted its $180,000 after-school budget to hiring more teachers for the longer day, which now includes classes in theater, art, technology, and sign language.
The benefit to parents of the longer day was a side-effect, Logan-Smith says.
Change is hard
Tweaking Goldie Maple's schedule was a gargantuan task that took intensive planning and five years of lobbying New York City’s department of education for approval. “This not only affects the teachers,” points out Logan-Smith. “You have to talk about the transportation, food service, security, custodial staff, the computer system that tracks staff hours.”
Logistics like transportation are a frequently cited barrier to change. “Believe it or not, the bus schedule drives a huge amount of school schedule,” Gabrieli says. To save money, many school districts make buses drive multiple routes, which means that elementary, middle, and high school students start school at different times.
Other wrinkles have to do with money – a shorter day and year is cheaper for financially strapped districts – and with teacher preference for a shorter work day and a summer break to spend with the family, earn extra money, or do professional development. “In unionized states, the hours that schools go is a very highly negotiated item,” says Gabrieli. Additionally, some studies over the years have questioned whether, on its own, more time in school is enough to move the needle on student performance.
Another, perhaps a more underestimated influence on the school schedule, is tourism, according to CAP. In some states, the industry lobbies government to block public schools from starting the year before Labor Day in September or ending it after Memorial Day in May to boost business. Students in Virginia start the school year a week after their neighbors in DC and Maryland because a 1986 “Kings Dominion Law,” named after a local amusement park, pushes the beginning of the school year back to ensure that local attractions get extra summer traffic.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way
Despite those obstacles, there has been a push toward extended hours around the country; the idea is supported by people like President Obama and former US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. At least 20,000 schools have extended their schedules in the last decade, CAP reports, using government funding and creative programs to manage the costs.
In pushing for a 9-to-5 school day, the think tank estimates that it would cost a minimum of $4 to $5 per student for each hour of school. For a typical elementary school of 500 students this would total $2,000 to $2,500 per additional hour of teaching, money that’s available to schools through existing federal grants, CAP notes. A 2015 law – Every Student Succeeds Act – for example, allows schools to use the $1 billion in grants previously available to schools only for after-school programs to pay for longer schedules, particularly in high-poverty areas.
The money is there, say advocates like Brown and Gabrieli. It’s the traditional scheduling mindset that’s hard to change. Though some parents resist the longer days simply because they worry they might overwhelm their already over-programmed kids.
“I think society has just accepted that this is the way schools work,” Browns says. “Conceding that we should have a 9-to-5 school day because that’s the way most parents operate, I think is a hard thing.”