Most local administrators would be OK with longer school days
Some local administrators agree that adding as many as 300 hours of classroom time to the school year, as planned in a national pilot project, would benefit students,
However, the larger concern, as is always the case today in public education, is how to pay for it.
Five states announced Monday that they will add at least 300 hours of learning time to the calendar in some schools starting in 2013. Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee will take part in the initiative, which is intended to boost student achievement and make U.S. schools more competitive on a global level.
Bernard Stellar, Mount Carmel Area superintendent, said more time would help students in his district, many of whom come from lower-income families.
"Many that come from a low-income household have parents that may not be educated themselves, and that keeps the cycle going," he said. "The more time spent with the student, the better it is."
The biggest obstacle in implementation is finding the extra money to pay teachers and even utilities.
"We couldn't do it right now, especially if it was done as an unfunded mandate," Stellar said.
The three-year pilot program will affect almost 20,000 students in 40 schools, with long-term hopes of expanding the program to include additional schools - especially those that serve low-income communities. Schools, working in concert with districts, parents and teachers, will decide whether to make the school day longer, add more days to the school year or both.
"I'm convinced the kind of results we'll see over the next couple of years I think will compel the country to act in a very different way," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in an Associated Press story.
A mix of federal, state and district funds will cover the costs, with the Ford Foundation and the National Center on Time & Learning chipping in resources.
Spending more time in the classroom, officials said, will give students access to a more well-rounded curriculum that includes arts and music, individualized help for students who fall behind and opportunities to reinforce critical math and science skills.
Help at home, too
Ruby Michetti, curriculum coordinator at Shamokin Area School District, favors more classroom time, and believes it would "absolutely" be beneficial.
"Time is crucial to success in education," she said.
Like MCA, she noted Shamokin Area students start out "so far below the bar," citing socio-economic disadvantages. She said approximately 60 percent of the student population are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Apart from extending the school day, Michetti said a longer calendar year prevents lessons from eroding during summer vacation.
But she understands the potential drawbacks.
"Presently we don't have the money, and presently we don't have the tax base to afford that," Michetti said.
Perhaps the greatest impact on childhood education can come from home, she said.
Maybe too long?
Dave Campbell, Line Mountain superintendent, questioned whether keeping students in school for longer days is a good idea.
"I'd like to see the data on when you hit a breaking point," he said. "Is it a good thing putting them here for 8 1/2 hours?"
Elementary students start school at 9 a.m. and leave school at 3:30 p.m., while high school students start at 7:35 a.m. and leave at 2:25 p.m. This, however, does not take into account upwards of an hour each way too and from school in rural Line Mountain.
"How many American workers work more than 8 hours a day? We don't even ask our adults to do that," he said.
Campbell also questioned the notion that the United States doesn't already compete with the world in education.
"We are well-rounded," he said, noting the system includes every student and offers options like technical schools, sports programs, extracurricular activities and arts. "I think our best and brightest are better and brighter than they've ever been."
Searching for solutions
More classroom time has long been a priority for Duncan, who warned a congressional committee in May 2009 - just months after becoming education secretary - that American students were at a disadvantage compared to their peers in India and China. That same year, he suggested schools should be open six or seven days per week and should run 11 or 12 months out of the year.
But, like Campbell, not everyone agrees that shorter school days are to blame. A report last year from the National School Boards Association's Center for Public Education disputed the notion that American schools have fallen behind in classroom time, pointing out that students in high-performing countries like South Korea, Finland and Japan actually spend less time in school than most U.S. students.
The broader push to extend classroom time could also run up against concerns from teachers unions. Longer school days became a major sticking point in a seven-day teachers strike in September in Chicago.
Just over 1,000 U.S. schools already operate on expanded schedules, an increase of 53 percent over 2009, according to a report released Monday in connection with the announcement by the National Center on Time & Learning. The nonprofit group said more schools should follow suit, but stressed that expanded learning time isn't the right strategy for every school.