This always seems to be some people answer to any problem. Profits down, make them work harder. Morale down, make them work harder. Scores down, make them work harder.
Hard work is the archetype that seems to define the US. Everyone who succeed has done so by hard work, sacrifice and determination. While this may be true, it does not follow that worker harder is going to solve all problem. For instance have coal miners work harder to produce more coal is not going to solve global warming. Requiring quality control staff to inspect twice as many parts is not going to solve quality problems in a product. Creating a culture in which employees work longer hours is often not necessarily going to increase quality or decrease long term costs.
So why it is that all too often in school improvement do we focus on the length of the school day with no critical analysis on the implicatios?
To begin, there is nothing wrong with an optional longer school day or even school year. Many students befit from such a things. Athletes, for instance, depend on the longer day to gain additional physical skills. Many students want and benefit greatly from academic tutoring. Summer programs, be it for makeup work or enrichment, provides a continuity of education that many students desire.
The key element if this kind of extended day or year is that they are optional. The coach, or teacher, or tutor, has a group of students that are motivated, or at least slightly more motivated than the students who are only in school because they or their parents will be put in jail if they do not attend. The coach, or teacher, or tutor, chooses to work the over time, either as part of the contract or for extra pay. This provides a unique situation in which there is an agreement between student, teacher, and administration to work harder. It is a good thing. These programs need to funded with pay of for the coaches and teachers, funding for nutritional meals, and bus service.
However, I do question whether asking everyone to committee to an extended day or extended year will be beneficial, that is increase the learning of the average student. I would say the answer is a definite no, but at best it is a very qualified yes.
Imagine if you were asked to work an extra every day, or Christmas, or even Thanksgiving afternoon. While some would welcome the extra pay, some would see this an intrusion. Mandatory overtime has never been popular, even with employers. They know that at some point the productivity and loss of morale will simply mean they are wasting money.
School is no different, except that we are not paying the students, but asking them to do hard work for some intangible future rewards. Obviously some students see value in this, and some are willing to do a great deal of work, but the average student is just like the average adult. At some point the effort reward graphs intersect and return on investment becomes negative.
So why are extended days and extended years pushed by people who should know better? I think there are three reasons.
First, some people just think teachers do not do enough work for their pay. They get too much vacation, they get out at 3, the unions are too powerful. So the way to solve this is to make the work day longer. Teachers have to work longer, effective pay is reduced. Presumably everyone will be happy because teachers will get a bit more money and everyone else can relish in the fact that teachers are working for less.
The mistake in this thinking is that teachers are professionals who are paid a salary to get a job done. The time in classroom, the required time at school, is not the complete job, it is only the part of the job with mandatory hours. There is prep time, professional development, and grading that must be done as outside time allows. This is just like any other professional job, in which one has meeting, deadlines, but otherwise there can be a great deal of flexibility.
Second, some people think that teaching is babysitting. In many people minds, the school is there to keep the kids off the street during the day. They want publicly funding supervision from 7:00 in the morning to 7:00 at night. Parents want to be free to drop kids off when they are ready, and pick them up when they need them back. Business wants older kids off the street during the day so they do not cause problems.
But school is not daycare. Effective teachers are not going to work for minimum wage. Students are not going to tolerate hours in classrooms without teachers who can engage them. Even if we add computer and carrer classes in the mix, classes with are hugely expensive, and cheap tutors, it is difficult to imagine the average student to be engaged for a day that many want to be ten hours long.
The third is testing. It is not exaggeration to say that two months a year are lost to testing. Some of this is high quality testing that does provide valuable information to students and teachers, but much of it is simply to provide ass coverage for administrators and politicians and divert tax payer funds to private firms. These folks need to say they are doing something to make the evil lazy teachers do something, and buy influence and votes, so the testing is how to do this. Remember that textbooks are not nearly as popular as they once were. Testing keep that river of cash flowing out of the public treasury to private pockets.
That is not to say that nothing can be done to meet what is clearly a need of the population. First, there is no reason why we can't have flexible days, particularly at the high school level. There is no reason why a high school can't be open from 7am to 7pm. We can have teachers choose shifts, and students and parent work out when is the best time for them to take classes. This would solve a how slew of problems, but require administration to trust teachers to do the work.
We can also have year round schools in which each segment of the year is independent. We could, for instance, have 15 or 16 week trimesters with 6 days of vacation built in, 4 statutory days for testing, and two weeks in between. This would give 65-70 days of classes room instruction. If we mandated 55 minutes classes every day, this would be equivalent to what we have now. It would also solve the problem of have an extremely compressed spring semester due to excessive testing.
Teachers would only be required to work two trimesters, and do two addition weeks. Student could choose to attend two or three triumesters per year, and be counted truant if they missed two consecutive period. Perhaps if they attend three trimester they can take the electives courses that we never seem to have time for. This would be radical reform, but if we are going to talk about reform, why not be radical