Friday, January 24, 2014

Smoke, Mirrors, and Longer School Days

Not satisfied with lengthening the commute for residents of New Jersey using the George Washington Bridge, Gov. Chris Christie now wants to lengthen the school day for children. A cynic might say that Christie is trying to distract attention from his recent scandals by once again attacking his favorite target, teachers and public education. A cynic might also point out that Christie has championed, over the years, lots of education reform initiatives that denigrate public education and feed into the efforts to privatize education. Here we need mention only charter school proliferation, vouchers, standardized testing and teacher evaluation based on unreliable test measures. A cynic might also point to Christie appointees like State Commissioner of Education, Chris Cerf and the underqualified, but pliant, superintendents put in place in Newark and Camden as examples of Christie’s disdain for real educators. For an excellent recounting of the political agenda behind this call for a longer school day please see this blog post from teacherbiz.

But please allow me, for a moment, to park my cynicism on the GWB on ramp. Let’s say that Christie’s call to lengthen the school day and calendar year is a legitimate proposal. Does the proposal have merit? From my reading of the research the answer would be yes, but…

There is actually quite a bit of research available on longer school days or longer school years. Here is what we know with some certainty. This information comes from The Chalkboard Project’s review of the research on extended learning time.

·         The connection between time and learning is not straightforward, and depends on how effectively learning time is being used.
·         Additional learning time is effective only when existing learning time is well used.
·         Extended learning time can be effective for all children, but is more effective for children of economic disadvantage than for children from middle or high socio-economic status households.
·         Extended learning time programs have been more effective in primary and secondary grades than in middle school.
·         Extending the school day is more cost effective than extending the school year.
·         Any program should start small, gather evidence and expand over time.

So, a serious proposal for extended days should include the following:

·         An audit of how well school time is used currently. There can be a wide difference between time in school for children and time devoted to learning. Schools should work to maximize current learning time, before adding additional time. This could be as broad based as reorganizing school schedules for maximum learning and as simple as making sure the public address system is turned off during the school day.
·         Provide a combination of instructional support and enrichment activities likely to engage all students in learning.
·         Include arts exploration and education along with core subject enrichment or remediation.
·         Involve teachers in the planning, leadership and implementation of the program.
·         Involve the parents and community in the planning of the program.

If I ruled the education world, I would include two other things in the extended day/extended year plan. The first may well be the best way to use a longer day that could be devised.

1.    Teacher Professional Development – The best possible use I can imagine for a longer school day is to use the time for teachers to meet together to share ideas and improve practice. Here I am thinking about the Professional Learning Community model, where teachers meet together collegially to discuss lessons, strengthen instructional practice, problem solve individual student concerns and receive occasional input from supervisor or experts in various fields. Teachers in other countries use models like Lesson Study to continually improve practice. In this country teachers only seem to be valued for the time they spend in front of students. In years past unions fought long and hard to get professionals a few minutes of planning time during the school day. Political leaders and the public need to understand that real, intensive professional collaboration could do more than any other single factor to improve student learning.

2.    Summer Literacy Enrichment – Summer loss syndrome is real. It is well documented that children living in poverty suffer a loss of literacy skills over the summer months. Some school districts have combatted this by extending the school year into the summer and taking brief breaks several times during the regular school year. I don’t see that happening in most places. What all school districts should commit to is a program of literacy enrichment for children over the summer. This could go a long way to reducing some of the summer loss that many children experience.

Christie has promised that details of his extended day plan will come out later. When they do, we will know if this is a serious plan or just another way to batter teachers and public education. Let’s see if the plan acknowledges the research; let’s see if the plan is fully funded.; let’s see if teachers are included in the decision making and let’s see if this plan is about improving school experiences for the public school children of New Jersey or if it is just another traffic cone on the entrance ramp to a strong public education system.