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Perspective | Globe Magazine

How longer school days can fight the effects of income inequality

Wealthy families can buy all sorts of extra education. Poor students don’t have that luxury.


For students, parents and educators, life’s rhythms are driven by the school schedule we settled into nearly a century ago. For 180 days, from around Labor Day until well into June, students arrive at schools in the morning and are discharged about 6½ hours later, well before the end of their parents’ workdays. I have spent much of my life over the past 16 years arguing that this schedule manifestly fails to meet the educational needs of disadvantaged students. And while the movement to expand learning time has made considerable progress here and across the nation, the inertia maintaining the status quo is remarkably deep-seated. Progress has been slower than what our students deserve.

There are three compelling school-related reasons to modernize this relic of the farm and factory era. First, students need more — and more personalized — academic support as they prepare for a working world where skills matter more than ever. Second, schools need to offer a well-rounded education, where there is room for academic essentials as well as civics, history, art, music, sports, and other worthy courses and activities. Third, our teachers need more time to prepare, to analyze student work and data, and to collaborate.


We support working families when school schedules more closely match parents’ work schedules. And when students are supervised and positively engaged, it helps deter them from crime, alcohol and drug use, and even teenage pregnancy.

Parents with the means have already moved well beyond the school-day offerings. Families in the top 10 percent income bracket spend more than $6,500 a year on after-school, vacation, and summer learning for their children, according to Harvard professor of public policy Robert Putnam. Many suburban parents might as well be running shuttle services, getting their kids from private math programs and individualized tutoring to ballet, music lessons, sports camps, and more. By contrast, those with little means spend on average a ninth as much, and their children often receive very little support beyond what schools provide.


No wonder then that Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon has shown that while the US educational achievement gap based on race has been significantly reduced over the last six decades, the achievement gap between rich and poor has increased by 40 percent in just the past 40 years. The basis for that has chiefly been the acceleration of success of those at the top.

Expanding learning time has proved to be a valuable tool for attacking this unacceptable gap. The high-performing charter schools in Boston operate for eight or even nine hours a day, typically 30 percent or more beyond the hours of traditional district schools. It is one of their bedrock strategies. Elsewhere, Harvard economist Roland Fryer has studied schools to find out which features predict student success, and expanded time is high on the list.

The good news is that when it comes to serving disadvantaged students, everyone wants more learning time. And we know from more than a decade of experience in pioneering schools around the state that an expanded schedule can be successfully implemented. The bad news is that the expanded day is still an experiment rather than the new normal that it needs to be.

Even changes to the layout of learning time can trigger strong reactions biased toward the status quo, as illustrated when Boston Superintendent Tommy Chang recently suggested starting school before Labor Day and dropping the traditional February break.


One major obstacle is an ongoing battle over how much more we should pay teachers who work more hours. Charter schools in Massachusetts generally don’t pay teachers more — they recruit teachers who sign up for that extended schedule. But where existing unionized teachers are being asked to do more, compensation is expected, and it has been difficult to agree on a deal that’s both fair and affordable.

Happily, schools in Lawrence and a zone of middle schools in Springfield have shown how it can be done. There, local unions voted in favor of contracts that provide for large increases in learning times in exchange for affordable, sustainable stipends for teachers of several thousand dollars more per year. Admittedly, these agreements were forged amid state pressure to turn around very low-performing schools, but it is exciting to see a practical approach advance.

We don’t need to expand time at every school in the state — just those, especially middle schools, serving our most disadvantaged students. And we should insist on quality, because time, like money, is a resource that can be squandered.

If the state would commit to a modest increase in funding and unions and management would agree to a balanced deal, Massachusetts could set a new standard for what it means to offer educational opportunity to those who need it most.

It’s been 23 years — a generation of students — since the state’s Education Reform Act required “a plan to extend the time during which students attend school.” In an era of concern about inequality and fear that the United States may be losing its leadership mantle, isn’t it about time we finally act on that promise?



> 6.1 hours — Average day for students in traditional Boston schools

> 8.2 hours — Average day for students in Boston charters

> At least 378 hours — Average additional instruction time per year for charter students

Source: The Boston Foundation

Chris Gabrieli, cofounder of Massachusetts 2020, is the CEO of Empower Schools, a part-time lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.