Students to Spend More Time in School: Is this a Sentence?

The Associated Press reported that five states will add at least 300 hours of time to the school year in program that will involve about 40 schools. Is a longer day in school a good thing? Will it be more of the same, that is teaching to the test, or will we see students set free to explore important questions and inquiries?

In a post I wrote entitled, We teach science not because it nurtures the child’s imagination, but because it might help get a job, I argued that much of the rationale for what we do with students in school is to make sure they become the kind of workers that corporate America needs to be able to compete globally. The fundamental intention for lengthening of the school day in schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee is to boost student achievement and make the U.S. schools more competitive on a global level.

Does More time spent in school lead to higher achievement? According to schools in five states, not only will more time in the classroom lead to higher test scores, but America will be more competitive. Another words, the reason we send children and youth to school is to make them more competitive on a global level.

Keep in mind that all those advanced countries like Finland, Shanghai-China, and Hong Kong-China, are our competitors. The thinking here is that with 1.6 hours more per day of instruction, American students’ achievement scores be hiked enabling them to outscore students in these countries. And of course we’ll measure these changes using international tests including TIMSS and PISA.

Spending more time in school doing the same kinds of things won’t lead to increased achievement. For example, lets take a look at science education for a moment. In January, 2013, Achieve, Inc. will release the revised version of the Next Generation Science Standards for review. The final version will follow in March, 2013, and most states will adopt these new standards. Central to the reasoning for new standards is that American science education is failing, and we need to raise the bar by mandating a “common” set of science standards for all schools. The new standards will make American science education more competitive. Here is what corporate America thinks about science and mathematics as written on the Achieve website describing the need for new standards:

In 2007, a Carnegie Foundation commission of distinguished researchers and public and private leaders concluded that “the nation’s capacity to innovate for economic growth and the ability of American workers to thrive in the modern workforce depend on a broad foundation of math and science learning, as do our hopes for preserving a vibrant democracy and the promise of social mobility that lie at the heart of the American dream”1. However, the U.S. system of science and mathematics education is performing far below par and, if left unattended, will leave millions of young Americans unprepared to succeed in a global economy.

It serves corporate interests (publishers, technology firms, foundations) to convince Americans that their system is failing. There is not much debate that schooling for children and youth can be improved, especially for the poor, for families with no housing, for parents that are unemployed, for citizens that live in areas of high crime. For these, the system is failing. But, the remedies that corporate reformers have pushed on American families is singularly positioned on achievement test scores, and testing the hell out of children, even starting at Kindergarten, and all the way through high school. Reformers refuse to consider what life is like for students outside of school. Indeed, it is these out of school factors that have a greater impact on the welfare and school success of students than the curriculum that is mandated by “expert” groups far from the local school.

Or in Olympic parlance, the main reason for aiming for higher standards (raising the bar) is because in the “Olympics” of international academic test taking, the U.S. never takes home the gold. In fact, according the tests results reported by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), U.S. students never score high enough to even merit a bronze medal. In the last PISA Science Olympics, Shanghai-China (population 23 million) took home the Gold, Finland (population 5.4 million) the Silver, and Hong Kong-China (population 7 million, the Bronze. The United States (population 314 million) average score positioned them 22nd on the leaderboard of 65 countries that participated in the PISA 2009 testing.

Word of caution.This plan is endorsed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and in fact he claims that the results that will be seen by increasing the school day will “compel the country to act in a very different way.” Duncan supports more or less anything: more time, more competitiveness, more tests, less involvement of teachers in decision making, more standards, more charter schools, less space for teachers and students to think and reflect. So, more time for students to endure sitting in a windowless room.

There are several interesting assumptions made in this plan. One is that there is a connection between achievement test scores and global competitiveness. Is this true? That is, if all of sudden American student’s test scores rise, will they necessarily be more competitive? This notion is not supported by research. Student achievement is not on the list of factors that make a nation more or less competitive. Another assumption is, does more time spent doing the same thing result in increased performance on academic tests? Another assumption that is does academic achievement, as measured by high-stakes tests, describe the “knowledge” needed to be more competitive? And in whose interest is it for competitiveness to the main reason for schooling? Students? Parents? Teachers? Corporations?

We’ve created a mind set that the main reason for schools is to enter the global skills race, and to make sure that we beat out our competitor nations. In what? School achievement? Home runs? Touchdowns? Some would argue that comparing scores across countries that vary so much in population, ethnic groups, poverty, health care, and housing is not a valid enterprise.

How can we possibly think that changing one variable, time spent in school, will have any meaningful effect on student’s achievement or life in or out of school? As usual, when we get into the envy game of comparing sizes (of achievement scores, for instance), we fail to consider the whole context. For example, American educators have an intense attraction for schools in Finland. So do I, but for different reasons.

In Finland, for example, all children, by law, have access to childcare, health care and pre-school. All citizens have a right to education, grades 1 – college, free of charge. All schools in Finland are funded on a formula guaranteeing equal allocation of resources, regardless of the school’s location. None of these is true for U.S. students. Yet, at the same time, it is valuable to find out what the is nature of schooling in other countries, and compare that to our own system.

In Finland, for example, in order to assess students’ level of knowledge in math, science, and other subjects, teachers themselves prepare the tests. These tests assess the students in the material which teachers choose to teach to the students during class as well as material which are obligatory according the National curriculum. Teachers’ freedom to teach what they want is the main cause for students with different background to have a different level of knowledge when they arrive to the Secondary School in Finland. In American schools, high-stakes tests are designed by corporate hires who have no idea about the students they are writing tests for.

There are many ways to improve schooling. Increasing the amount of time we make kids stay in school is not one of them.


1. Carnegie Corporation of New York-Institute for Advanced Study Commission on Mathematics and Science Education Executive Summary, p.1.

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Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a former high school science teacher and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. While at Georgia State he was coordinator of science education, and was involved in the development of several science teacher education programs, including the design and implementation of TEEMS, a clinically based...