A frequent criticism I’ve been hearing about the “modified balanced calendar” proposal is that it merely shifts the beginning and end of the school year without actually adding any instructional days. Instead of starting in early September and ending in early June, the school year would start in mid-August and end in mid-May, but would include the same number of instructional days (174). This raises the question: would it make better educational sense to add instructional days and create a longer school year?
By international standards, 174 instructional days is astonishingly few. In India, for example, students spend 200 days in school, and the international average is around 195 days. But according to a report from the Center for Public Education, there are fewer actual hours of instruction in most other countries than in the United States. “Of particular note,” the report tells us,
no state requires as few hours as Finland, even though Finland scores near the top of nearly every international assessment. As a matter of fact, Vermont—a high-performing state—requires the fewest number of hours (700 hours) for its elementary students (grades 1-2) than any other state, and it still requires more than Finland. Vermont’s requirement is also more than the 612 hours high-achieving Korea requires of its early elementary students. Moreover, all but 5 states require more hours of instruction at the early elementary school level than the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries average of 759 hours.
In England, where my sons attended school in 7th and 9th grade, there are more instructional days, but there are longer breaks between classes during the day, resulting in fewer instructional hours. The longer breaks—recesses, essentially—give students time to refresh and restore themselves between classes. The UK, it should be noted, is among the OECD countries that outperform the United States on assessments of literacy and math.
In the United States, we demand more “time on task,” more time spent on instruction, homework, and assessment. At the secondary level, we move students quickly from one class to the next with minimal breaks and no real recess. We require almost unbroken attention.
Education expert Alfie Kohn has examined the research on “time on task,” and come to the reasonable conclusion that engagement in a task is more important than the amount of time spent on that task. He concludes that students need more meaningful tasks, not more time spent on rote learning and test preparation.
Kohn cites an interesting Stanford University study that “compared four different reforms: peer tutoring, smaller classes, more use of computers, and adding an hour of instruction each day.” The study showed that simply adding more instructional time was the least effective intervention: “On a cost-effectiveness basis, the time intervention was found to rank at the bottom with respect to improving student performance in mathematics and third out of the four [in reading]” (Levin 363, quoted by Kohn).
The Stanford study shows that “external increases in time allocations of students to learning will create a reduced effort for that activity” (Levin 361). In other words, more instructional time results in less student effort, and has little effect on student achievement. At a certain point (the “equilibrium input,” in the language of the study), students begin to slack off. Attention wanders. Productivity decreases.
The study concludes that “a more direct approach to increasing student achievement” would be to “[make] schools more vital and exciting places to be and [to make] the learning experience more interesting”:
If students are more fully engaged in their learning activities because of the intrinsic attractions of the learning experience, they will devote more time and effort to those activities (Levin 363).
More instructional days, more “time on task,” and more test preparation are not the best methods for increasing student achievement. Much more effective is increasing student engagement in learning.
Levin, Henry M., and Mun C. Tsang. 1984. “The Economics of Student Time.” Economics of Education Review 6.4: 357-364.