Ideas

Should the school year be longer?

A large-scale study throws cold water on a popular idea

Jing Wei for the Boston Globe

Thanks to Hurricane Sandy and record snowstorms in February and March, this year Boston-area schools will be open for business through the end of June. Students will likely spend the extra week, which is required by law to make up for this year’s five or more weather-related cancellations, staring wistfully out the window.

But while to students the class time might seem like an unfair encroachment on vacation, this extra week of school during the hot months is just a taste of what many education reform advocates would like to see: Kids may be on their way to spending more of every summer in school.

Researchers have long been aware that test scores drop between the end of spring and the beginning of fall, and many education reform advocates have suggested that shorter summer breaks could stop that backsliding, especially for students from poor families. Beyond that, however, it’s common sense that more time in school means more learning. A longer school year has garnered support from a range of officials, from local school committee members to US Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Last year, Duncan called additional time “a critical investment that better prepares children to be successful in the 21st century.”

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But a new study of Mexican elementary schools suggests common sense might not have it right. The research, conducted by economists at the University of California Riverside and published in the Journal of Economic Development, looked at schools across Mexico, where the time between the start of the year and a national exam varied from 143 to 183 days. Despite ongoing efforts across Latin America to increase the time students spend in school, the researchers found that the time difference had little impact on students’ test results—and in the poorest districts, where students struggle the most, additional days seemed to have no effect at all.

Jing Wei for the Boston Globe

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The Mexican education system is very different from our own. But hard data on how longer school years affect learning is actually quite rare, because it’s nearly impossible to design controlled experiments that test the idea. While the new study doesn’t mean that efforts to increase time in school should be scrapped, it does suggest that here in America, we need to take a closer look at whether simply increasing class time—an expensive proposition, in terms of tax dollars and political capital—will improve our schools. And that uncertainty highlights a larger issue: how little we know for sure about which education reforms will actually help kids learn.

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Adding more school days to the year is not a new idea. It dates back to a founding document of the school reform movement, a report called “A Nation at Risk,” assembled by President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education in 1983. Drawing on testimony from educators, academics, business leaders, parents, and public officials, the commission suggested a bevy of common-sense reforms, including a tougher curriculum, more homework, and better teacher preparation programs. And, noting that the school year in other countries is often longer than ours, the commission recommended that American kids spend more time in school.

At that time, our 180-day school calendar was a longstanding nationwide norm, established as a compromise between cities, which in the 19th century kept schools open year-round, and rural areas, where students had attended school only when they weren’t needed on the family farm. Reagan’s commission, panicking over the economic and national security implications of what it called “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people,” recommended states lengthen their official school years to between 200 and 220 days.

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That recommendation went nowhere; states saw expanding the school year as too expensive. In recent years, however, more and more schools have experimented with adding more time to the year. Fall River and Lawrence will add at least 300 hours to the school year this fall, as part of a three-year, five-state pilot program sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the National Center on Time and Learning. About 24 Boston-area charter schools now have longer school days of up to 9 hours, as well as years with up to 200 days, while another two dozen Boston public schools campuses have added hours to the day or held class during school vacations.

“I would take any more time we could get!” said Melissa Partridge, director of extended learning for Boston public schools. “We still operate on an agrarian calendar, and we are not an agrarian society; we are a 21st-century, professional society.”

But whether more time at school really helps students remains unproven. For years, advocates for more time in school pointed to so-called summer learning loss—test scores go down between school years, especially for poor students—as the best argument for a longer school year. It seems logical that a shorter summer would fix this. Yet schools that have switched to a year-round calendar—that is, 180 days distributed evenly throughout the year, without lengthy breaks—have shown negligible improvement.

Meanwhile, some schools that have adopted longer days or years as a reform measure now boast terrific results. But it’s difficult to untangle time from other variables, such as the quality of teaching or the amount of personalized attention students receive. It’s generally not possible to run controlled studies—you can’t just extend the year for one group of students while keeping a demographically identical group’s year short to see what happens. For now, what we know about time in school comes from instances in which the length of the school year varies because of an external factor—the weather, for example, or local cultural variations.

Some researchers have tried to find naturally arising contrast cases to pinpoint whether longer school years matter. A handful of recent studies found that canceling school days during snowy winters slightly reduced the rates at which Maryland and Colorado students passed standardized tests in the spring. A working paper published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge found academic gains when Israel increased funding for some schools, which used the money to add time to the school week. But that may have had more to do with time spent on certain subjects than with school hours generally. Other researchers have tried to discern the effect of time in school by comparing different countries—Japan, for example, holds classes 240 days out of the year and consistently beats the United States in math. It’s hard to draw conclusions from such correlations, though; there are simply too many differences between the countries.

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The Mexico study, with its suggestion that longer years may not help as much as experts have assumed, breaks ground by looking at a wide range of school-year lengths over three years, covering nearly every public elementary school in Mexico. The variations were pre-planned, and unrelated to any specific effort to boost achievement (one state, for example, has a shorter year in order to accommodate a monthlong religious festival). While the researchers did find a slight positive correlation between more days of school before the national standardized test and better scores, they also found that if the school year was at least 160 days long, more days didn’t make any difference.

Despite ongoing efforts across Latin America to increase the time students spend in school, the researchers found that the time difference had little impact on students’ test results—and in the poorest districts, where students struggle the most, additional days seemed to have no effect at all.

“You can imagine more days in school would be a good thing,” said Jorge Agüero, an author of the study and a professor of economics at the University of California Riverside, “but that implies that every day there is some kind of learning.”

An especially troubling finding, Agüero said, was that adding more days in the most well-funded school districts boosted test scores a little, but more days in the poorest areas had no effect at all—even though the poorest students, whose families lack the resources to provide them with out-of-school enrichment, should have the most to gain from more time at school.

“We keep thinking, in general, that there is one silver bullet,” Agüero said, “but if you increase one component of the learning environment without increasing others, you are not going to make much difference.”

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Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the National Center on Time and Learning, a Boston-based advocacy group, believes strongly that more time at school is crucial, especially for students from lower-income families. But he said Agüero’s findings did not contradict that philosophy. “Changing the school schedule doesn’t mean, on its own, that there’s going to be more time on task,” he said. “It’s not a guarantee of success, but if you look at the schools that use time well, they are dramatically improving.”

A prime example, Gabrieli said, is Brooke Charter Schools, with 800 students at K-8 schools in Roslindale, Mattapan, and East Boston. The Brooke Schools keep kids in the building from 7:45 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon, and they add two weeks in August. Brooke’s Roslindale campus has been one of the highest-performing in the state in reading and math since it opened in 2002, even though three-quarters of students come from low-income families.

“It tests you—you’d better offer an engaging school day,” founder Jon Clark said. “But it’s no question time is essential. If you have 25 percent more time to do the hard work, you’re going to see results.”

Whether other schools could replicate that success by adopting Brooke’s hard-driving schedule is another question. For school reform advocates, however, the urgency around improving learning outcomes means that waiting for more research could waste valuable time. “I don’t think we need more data,” Gabrieli said. “We need more political will.”

What we do know for sure about lengthening the school year is that it would require a major investment. According to the Education Commission of the States, adding just one day to Massachusetts’ official school calendar would cost at least $66 million statewide. While the political will to spend that kind of money seems to be lacking, education department spokesman J.C. Considine called expanded time a “key strategy” for struggling schools—one that the state government is working to fund through grants to select districts.

Beginning in September, state education officials will have their eyes on Fall River and Lawrence, with their new supersize school year packed with an extra 300 hours. If those kids’ test scores go up, other students around Massachusetts may find themselves spending more time in class as well.

Amy Crawford has contributed to Slate, Smithsonian, and Boston Magazine.
Follow her on Twitter @amymcrawf.