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Work Longer or Work Smarter?

After a bad ice storm one year in upstate New York, a number of schools ended up using all of their allotted “snow” days and then some, and it was only March.  (For those of you unfamiliar with the weather in Upstate, it’s not unusual to see snow in April or even May.)  The commissioner was unwilling to forgive any of those days, so in order to adhere to the regulations for 180 school days, schools cancelled spring vacations and/or remaining staff development days.  Some schools extended the school year in June for a few days, a complete waste of time as far as I was concerned since most kids (and staff) mentally check out once the weather turns warm and state final exams are done. Students

One enterprising superintendent thought he had a creative solution to the problem:  He would make up the hours lost by tacking a few minutes onto each school day for the rest of the year.  This idea did comply with the letter of the law, but it  revealed a cynical disregard for the spirit.   The extra minutes were added to every student’s last period whether it was English, physical education, or study hall. 

The whole experience made me stop and think about whether the actual time spent in school matters. 
Every time I hear that some state is planning to increase class time, I’m always a little skeptical regarding how effective the change will be -- because it’s not just about time; it’s about how the time is used.  As a veteran school person, I am convinced that we need to work smarter before we work longer. 

This week Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that five states will add at least 300 hours to the school calendar in a 3-year pilot program beginning next fall.  Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee compose the group of states.  The initiative will be paid for with federal, state, and local monies, but the proportions remain unclear.  Schools received waivers to divert some federal funding already received to the new effort.  The effort will affect some 20,000 students.  Individual districts will decide whether to add time to the school day or extend the school year.

Extending the school day is not without its problems.  Cost, of course, is significant, and school officials must consider what will happen if the initial funding is cut. There may be changes or additions to bus schedules.  Sports practices and schedules may be affected.  Students have jobs or babysitting responsibilities or music lessons after school.  So if the school day is going to be extended, it had better be worth it.

There is, after all, nothing magical or even scientific about 6-7 hours per day for 180 school days.  It’s what we do with the time that counts.  Educators need to examine what happens within the hours presently allotted to schooling.  How much time is spent on direct instruction or practice?  How much time is wasted on reviewing information students already know or skills they already have?  How much time is spent on classroom management or interruptions from the office?  Duncan hopes that the additional time can be used to reinstitute the arts or to provide extra help, both worthy causes.  But every moment in school counts, and frankly, for the most part, schools don’t run efficiently.  Adding more time without careful examination of what we already do with the time we have will not produce the results we hope for.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.