Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Seeming Paradox Regarding the Use of Time in Education

American politicians--mayors, governors, presidents--have made a fashion lately of calling for longer school days and years, and with some reason: high performing charter school networks such as KIPP (the Knowledge in Power Program) depend upon longer school days, Saturday schooling, and brief summer sessions to maintain their impressive results. But where the money would come from to pay for this increase in schooling is unclear, and the evidence on the relationship, if any, between the length of the school day and year and consequent student success is also far less clear than is often assumed by those whose knowledge of education stops at our shores.

For example, Eurydice, the educational knowledge network and database for Europe, studied the widely varying uses of time among the 37 nations belonging to it and found no correlation at all between the length of the school day and year and student achievement on measures like PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment of the OECD. And two of the top performing educational systems with which I am familiar, those of Finland and South Korea, also provide counter-evidence to the simplistic thesis that more time in school necessarily leads to more learning. In Finland, students don't start school until age seven, and they spend fewer annual hours in school than any other country in Europe, yet their test scores are ahead of those of all other European (and American) countries by the time the students are 15. And in South Korea, while the school year is longer than the American and tops 200 days per year, the annual number of hours teachers are scheduled to be in class is the lowest of any country in the OECD.

What to make of this data? The key point, I think, is that the question of how students use their time is not equivalent to the question of how long they are in school. This is where socioeconomic status, and in particular the culture of the home, prove vital. European citizens with rich cultural offerings and thorough social safety nets offer their young a wealth of activities outside of school time, which some of them are wise enough to enjoy (not all do). Koreans and other east Asians, especially in their teen years, spend long hours attending cram schools or being tutored after school, and it is this use of time, rather than anything special happening in their schools, that leads to their dominating the international test score league tables. Wealthy Americans have their children in numerous activities, especially sports, after school and on weekends, and some have the means of taking their children on long summer vacations which can be very culturally enriching in their own way. But poor Americans in ghettos have virtually nothing to do all summer long but watch TV or get in trouble with local gangs.

This is where equity issues get tricky. On the one hand, spending more on the schooling of some students than on others in order to buy the former extra time with teachers feels innately wrong and unjust because it violates the principle that all people deserve equal treatment. On the other hand, in a Western country with such gross social inequities as the United States, it is patent that if we don't intervene in schools to try to compensate for the inequities elsewhere in our social system, we are confirming those inequities, and dooming most (a few of outstanding talent will escape the ghetto anyway thanks to our meritocratic opportunities) poor children to second-rate lives.

Utilizing the approach to social justice experimentally derived in Marc Hauser's Moral Minds, which implies that we make equal distribution of social goods whenever we can and prioritize giving to the underprivileged first whenever we don't have enough of some good or service to go around, I think summer schooling for all a sound if, for now, utopian social policy, and suggest that we begin by lengthening the school year of our most underprivileged first, and gradually lengthen it for everyone.


  1. (From Elena Silva of Education Sector) To add to the tricky equity issue: While I agree that providing more time to the poorest kids first makes sense—they need it most and, if done right, would likely narrow achievement gaps—one thing we know about extended time is that it takes schools with a certain amount of leader and staff capacity to ensure that it’s quality time and not just more of the same. So what do we think about adding time to really low performing schools that don’t have this kind of capacity and that disproportionately serve poor kids? That seems to be part of the strategy right now, at least from the federal government, with 80 percent or so of school improvement grantees committing to add time without much evidence of capacity or any great planning.

  2. Elena, I agree with your concern, and expressed much the same (with added detail) in my comment on your blog ( today.