Williams: Why a Longer School Day Could Make Learning More Compelling for Kids — and Life Less Stressful for Parents

The history of the United States is a series of efforts to establish (and re-establish) policies and public institutions capable of delivering the promise of the Declaration of Independence. For instance, many years ago, we realized that our political system was fostering un-democratic concentrations of wealth and inhumane labor conditions, so we instituted anti-monopoly laws, passed a progressive income tax, and recognized collective bargaining rights.

It’s not a clean process, and it often takes far too long. But it works, piece by piece, as our decentralized political system shuffles up to imperfect ways of making America better at living up to its core promises. Education reforms are no different: In so many ways, our schools are built for an earlier version of American society and economy. Structural changes can help make them work better for children and families.

The lag in these reforms even shows up in schools’ schedules. Why do schools run for (on average) less than seven hours per day? Why does school generally end before 3 p.m.? Aside from educators themselves, almost no American adults work that sort of schedule.

That misalignment has consequences. School schedules put pressure on families struggling to construct a sane, healthy life for their children. In an era when slow wage growth means that only a dwindling number of parents can afford to stay home to care for their kids full time, many parents pay extra for before- and/or after-care so they can juggle school and work schedules.

A recent Center for American Progress brief asks the obvious question: Why not set up the school day to mirror the workday? Public schools’ current schedule, brief authors Lisette Partelow, Catherine Brown, Sarah Shapiro, and Stephenie Johnson write, “requir[es] parents to make tough choices about their income, parental involvement, and child care. Nearly half of all U.S. workers report not having any form of flexibility in their work schedules, and almost 40 percent of all workers do not even have paid vacation time. Public school schedules are not based on student achievement but on an antiquated system that relies on two-parent, one-income households.”

In response, the brief proposes that education leaders find ways to align the school day with families’ work schedules. The direct benefits are multitudinous. First, an expanded school day would give kids more learning time. When implemented well, extended learning time programs can improve students’ academic achievement and social-emotional development.

Second, more learning time could help schools give students a wider range of educational experiences — more arts, music, technology, project-based learning, and time exploring outdoors. This sort of programming would give more students more holistic, meaningful, and flat-out interesting educational experiences, which could help keep more students engaged and invested in school.

The reform’s second-order benefits are nearly as important. Additional learning time — and better schedule alignment — would make families’ lives recognizably better. If the school day covers more of parents’ and caregivers’ workdays, they’ll be able to work more and spend less on child care costs.

Unsurprisingly, research is clear on this point: Additional money for families is good for kids.

When a political reform provides students with more — and better — learning time, and helps families balance work and family life, that’s a nearly unbeatable political combination. What’s not to like?

There are real challenges. Above all, the country would have to agree to pay for expanding schools’ operating hours. Educators still waiting for a return to pre-recession funding levels can’t reasonably provide an extra 10 hours of quality educational experiences for kids without additional money. Without meaningful increases in public education spending, school schedule changes are likely to be uneven, unsustainable, and of unimpressive quality.

There are other serious logistical questions. How would this alter districts’ transportation responsibilities? In recent years, the movement to shift high school start times later has sparked a host of simple, but difficult, questions about how to squeeze in extracurricular activities before dark and ensure that elementary school students aren’t on buses with high schoolers.

And finally, like always, it’s not enough to simply get the funding, buy more buses, and fill the classrooms with more staff. Hard as it can be to sell the public on raising revenue for new education reforms, tough as it is to solve busing headaches, children still won’t benefit much unless schools use their extra time with students well. If kids spend most of their two extra daily hours at school bouncing off the walls or repeating things they did during the day, it’s unlikely that they’ll benefit academically. If schools can’t make this time useful to kids, it’s hard to argue why the public ought to pay for it.

What’s more, many kids are worn out after our current school day. They need meaningful educational experiences to help them thrive and develop in ways beyond academics. Schools that take advantage of schedule reforms (and attached funding) to design better learning for kids are going to make students’ lives better. Schools that use the extra time and money to repeat their normal school-day programming or run stultified programming are going to make students’ lives duller and less fulfilling.

Still, no reform is challenge-free, and the potential benefits from tinkering with the U.S. school day are considerable. In a moment when so many U.S. families are struggling to piece together a sane work-life balance (to say nothing of long-term savings), the basics of having and raising kids are painfully hard to put together. That’s out of step with the promise of American life, and work-school schedule alignment could help.

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