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How Long Should a School Day Be?

What is the ideal amount of time for students to spend in school? Some experts say more time in school is the key to providing students with a successful education. The average school day in the US is between 6 and 7 hours per day, usually from around 8:00 am until somewhere around 2:00 pm. Most states require about 180 days of school per year, with different breakdowns of how those days are scheduled. Typically, students get between 900 and 1200 hours worth of schooling each year, which is above the global average, but lower than some elite countries like China or Germany. These guidelines provide a legal minimum for how much schooling children need, but they do not address the question of whether students would benefit from having more school.

Longer school days, sometimes called extended learning time (or ELT), have become more and more common in recent years, particularly among charter schools and low-performing schools looking to improve their academic achievement levels. Schools whose students underperform in standardized testing have turned to ELT as a way to raise their average scores, often with strong results.

While each school district implements ELT initiatives differently, funding is usually provided to supplement the school year with about 300 extra hours of learning time, which means adding roughly 90 minutes worth of classes each day. This additional time can be used for everything from core subjects to extracurricular activities.

One of the most ambitious examples of ELT started in 2013 when the US Department of Education joined forces with the National Center on Time & Learning and the Ford Foundation to start a “Time Collaborative.” Over the course of 3 years, 40 schools in 5 different states received funding to redesign their schedules to extend the education they provide.

While projects like this may seem like an indication of where education in the United States is heading, a longer school day does have some notable drawbacks. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of having a longer school day.

On the pro side, the more hours teachers have with students, the more they are able to teach. Schools that introduce ELT or a similar program are able to offer academic enrichment programs that other schools lack the time to introduce. Aside from the benefit to essential programs such as math and English, having more hours in the day gives schools the opportunity to provide a more diverse range of activities for students outside of core subjects. This newfound time allows programs to focus on artistic or athletic pursuits, without taking away from students’ basic education.

Another concern that more school time can help address is slightly less direct. Based on the structure of a typical American workday, the schedules of parents and children often don’t align. Balancing parenting responsibilities with work responsibilities is especially difficult when scheduling conflicts force parents to choose between being there for their kids and finishing a project at work. By extending the classes to later in the day, parents who finish work at 5 o’clock may be able to pick up their children or meet them at home, something that is impossible for most families if school ends at 2 or 3 o’clock.

However logical this may sound, research has actually been inconclusive. A 2006-2007 study by the Massachusetts Department of Education found that students scored an average of 5-10% percent better on tests when their school day was increased by 25%, which seems to be a very small result from such a large increase in schooling. Similar studies conducted in other districts were not able to find any such connection between average time spent in school and average test scores.

On the negative side, there are a few problems with increased class time that are worth discussing. One of the biggest potential issues is the effect longer days can have on morale for both students and teachers. The more time students spend in school, the less free time they have to relax and pursue their interests. Too much school can lead to frustration and fatigue, which some students struggle with already. Similarly, children, especially in the younger grades, may not have the stamina to complete longer school days. Whether physical or mental, 9 hours of focusing can be understandably difficult for children.

Additionally, if class time is extended without reducing the amount of homework that is assigned, students may end up spending less time with their families while they are at home, as well as staying up later to complete their work, cutting into their sleep schedules. The possible ripple effect of longer school days on family dynamics and sleep schedules could outweigh the positives of improved test scores.

Students are not the only ones who stand to suffer from a longer school day. Most teachers are expected to take time outside of normal school hours to prepare class material, grade tests, and complete various other tasks related to their students’ education. As it stands, the average teacher works around 58 hours a week, meaning that an increase in class time will demand a minimum 60-hour work week for most educators. Increasing teachers’ hours will not only have an impact on their morale, but it will also cost already underfunded school districts significantly more money in salaries per year.

Whichever side of the argument you fall on, there is clearly no simple answer to the question of how long an ideal school day should be. For now, the National Education Association does not have an official position on the length of school days; they state the process should be “a carefully planned collaborative effort.” This “collaborative effort” has produced different school day lengths across the country, but clearly more research is needed to find a definitive answer to this complicated question.

Evan Weinberger


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