Here is Duke University’s Harris Cooper offering a bold plan for education reform – extending the school year. There’s ample evidence to support the claim that increased instructional time has a positive impact on educational progress – particularly for low-income and struggling students. As Cooper argues, the current administration has thankfully made extending instructional time a central component of their reform agenda, but he makes a compelling case for even more:
But it is not only the summer schedule that needs rethinking. The length and organization of the school day don’t serve our children well either. Look outside a school building as the day ends and you see a queue of buses and vans waiting to transport children to empty homes or to afterschool programs.
For the past 15 years, my graduate students and I have reviewed research on school time and calendar issues. We’ve looked at summer learning loss, summer school, year-round calendars, afterschool programs and homework.
For nearly all these reforms, the evidence suggests that more learning time would have positive effects for kids – especially for poor kids and those struggling in school. But each effect is generally small, on its own.
Most recently, we examined empirical studies on the impact of lengthening the school day and year. The collective finding (and the wisdom of school calendar researchers) is that a few extra minutes here and a few extra days there won’t be enough to have the desired effect.
Instead, the increases in time have to be substantial enough that educators can adopt new curricula – and new expectations about what students should know and when they should know it. Don’t add 15 minutes a day, add an hour. Don’t add five days to the calendar, add 20. And, simultaneously, change how that time is used.
We’ve written previously on the devastating impact of summer learning loss and have argued that steps should be taken to keep the educational spigot on during the summer months. A study by Alexander, Entwistle, & Olson (2007) revealed that students across the socioeconomic spectrum make similar gains in reading and math during the school year, but that students from low-income families stagnate or slide during the intervening summer months. As Cooper reminds us, students from more affluent families have access to a wide array of academic activities (summer academic camps, tutoring, enrichment programs, study abroad opportunities, etc…) and often don’t experience as much learning loss as their less affluent peers (although, it’s worth noting that students across the economic spectrum experience a degree of math learning loss during the summer).
And what starts as a hiccup in a 6-year-old’s education can be a crisis by the time that child reaches high school. A major study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University concluded that while students made similar progress during the school year, regardless of economic status, the better-off kids held steady or continued to advance during the summer-while disadvantaged students fell back. By the end of grammar school, low-income students had fallen nearly three grade levels behind. By ninth grade, roughly two-thirds of the learning gap separating income groups could be blamed on summer learning loss.
We share Cooper’s concern and would argue that any serious effort at education reform must advocate, to some degree, extending instructional time for all students. As is becoming clear,to remain competitive the structure of educational institutions (including the amount of time dedicated to instruction) must reflect the realities of an increasingly well-educated and global landscape – not remain tied to cultural norms and practices of the past.
In the meantime, our own efforts to combat summer learning loss can be found in the free utilities and tools we offer to educators and students. Find a Book allows students to match themselves to targeted text based on their reading level and their interests. Once selected, students can create individualized book lists that reflect their own interests and choices. Find a Book is linked with public libraries across the U.S., making books of interest available to all students. Math at Home allows educators to create entire resource lists specifically targeted to a student’s math level. And because the resources are free and online, students can continue to practice and supplement their math lessons all summer long. It’s our hope that these resources offer all students a way to remain connected and engaged with academic material year round.