Chris Christie adds his voice to calls for a longer school year

In his State of the State address, Chris Christie laid out plans to extend the school day and year in New Jersey – a significant education reform that is gaining ground nationwide.

Mel Evans/AP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) delivers his State of the State address on Tuesday at the State House in Trenton, N.J. One of the ideas promoted in this speech: extended school hours.

In his State of the State address Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) called, among other things, for a longer school day and school year for New Jersey students.

It's one of the more significant proposals in a speech that is likely to garner much more attention than it would have a week ago, before the George Washington Bridge scandal threatened to damage Governor Christie's career and presidential prospects.

"If my children are living under the same school calendar that I lived under, by definition that school calendar is antiquated – antiquated both educationally and culturally for the world we live in," Christie said. "It is time to lengthen both the school day and school year in New Jersey.... These children need more time in school, some of them to catch up, some of them to excel more." He promised to deliver the details of his proposal soon.

Such calls are not new, and expanding learning time for students has been a fertile area in educational innovation. Advocates point to research showing that increased school time correlates with higher achievement and cite the need to restore electives and enrichment to a curriculum that has come to only emphasize math and reading. Skeptics question whether increased time – especially in schools that may not be fully utilizing the time they do have as well as they could – may not be the best use for scarce resources.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan notes that US students often spend 25 or 30 percent less time in school than young people in other countries and says that the traditional school calendar needs to be reformed.

“In the last couple of years there’s been really tremendous momentum on this issue of expanded learning,” says Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of the National Center on Time & Learning in Boston, who credits concern over failing US competitiveness on international tests as one driver of interest.

Ms. Davis cites broad-scale efforts in New Orleans; Elizabeth, N.J.; and Arizona as some of the most significant.

Still, the most promising forays into expanded learning time have been done on a smaller scale, through innovation schools, pilot projects, and charter schools that can set their own hours. Some charter school groups, like KIPP, have extended classroom time as a central tenet. And many other public-school innovation projects, like Massachusetts 2020, have focused more on using expanded time to bring enrichment, electives, and more flexibility into the school curriculum and schedule – a possibility that Davis and others cite as a big advantage of expanded learning time.

"There's a variety of what you can do and opportunities to do things that are not strictly more math or reading," says Robert Stonehill, managing director for the education program at American Institutes for Research in Washington.

On a large scale, the rhetoric around the issue from public officials like Christie largely has yet to be translated into action, mostly due to lack of resources, says Mr. Stonehill. And in an era where many of the trends are around the more apparently cost-effective strategies of personalized, device-enabled, "anywhere" learning, that's unlikely to change, he says.

"I don’t think the trajectory is going to be keeping the bricks-and-mortar places opened another two to three hours a day," Stonehill says.

Still, advocates for extended learning time point to research indicating that, when designed and used well, more time in school can translate to significant achievement gains for students, particularly those in low-income families. And they say that high-profile proposals like Christie's can help bring much-needed attention to the issue, though they emphasize the success of such programs depends less on how much time is added and more on how well that time is used.

“You cannot just tack on an hour to the day and expect you’ll have an educational impact,” says Davis. “What we recommend and hope schools and districts do is be thoughtful, and in the redesign of schedules ensure that every minute counts.”

“This has always been a bipartisan issue,” Davis adds. “It’s encouraging to see such a high-profile Republican talking about it.”

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