More Time in School?

The New York Times recently provided an online forum for a debate about increasing the time that students spend in school – and leaders across the youth field responded with strong opinions. One was this letter by Forum CEO Karen Pittman, which focused on rethinking where learning happens, not just when. She urged greater reliance by schools on community partners to deliver services that improve educational outcomes. Read some of the other letters, including the original that sparked the debate, here.


Meg Stewart’s observations in “Invitation to a Dialogue:  More Time in School” are spot on, though not new. The outdated agrarian school calendar costs parents and students time, money and learning gains, and the costs are borne disproportionately by low-income families. Ms. Stewart’s recommendations, however, are harder to implement than one would imagine. The issue is not simply one of cost.  It is one of coordination.

Lengthening the school day addresses complex child care issues and creates room for art and music. But there will be students who have interests and commitments better served by other organizations in their communities and who will not want to stay until 5 p.m. There will be older students for whom starting school at 5 p.m. is optimal given their need to work or parent.  And there will be teachers who justifiably balk at not starting the next day’s prep until 5 p.m. 

Modularizing school courses can reenergize learning, and short intersession breaks can help families who don’t take long summer vacations and can’t afford camp.  But the teens in these families may be eager to find summer jobs or spend time with relatives in faraway states or other countries.   

We have to find ways to offer all students more and better learning opportunities. Clearly one of the best ways to do this is to have these opportunities coordinated by schools. There are many ways to achieve “more” and “better,” some of which rely on community partners for delivery of credit-bearing classes, service placements and internships as well as after-school, summer and intersession activities. The mixed results from experiments with year-round schooling – originally introduced as a solution to overcrowding – demonstrate the importance of challenging prevailing definitions of when learning happens, as well as where, how and with whom.