"There is no accountability in the public school system - except for coaches. You know what happens to a losing coach.  You fire him.  A losing teacher can go on losing for 30 years and then go to glory." ....Ross Perot.

Commentary of the Day - January 27, 2013. Short-Sighted About Long Hours.  Guest commentary by Edward Carney.

Starting in the autumn of 2013 students in some low-performing school districts will have their classroom hours lengthened by 300 hours per year, in what has fairly been described as "a worthy experiment."  I don't presume to answer the question of whether it will be successful.  However, many of the stated rationales for it have left me scratching my head.

As much as I don't like to come across as cynical, worse than cynicism is the silly kind of optimism that leads people to regard a single new policy initiative as a catchall solution for highly complex problems.  That naivety seems to be on display in the description of longer school hours as a means of closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students.

In a segment on American Public Media's Marketplace, Ford Foundation president Luis Ubinas, explaining his advocacy for longer hours, said "The question we have is can we give all children the opportunity that our most affluent kids have?"

I dare say that the short answer to that question is "No."  Affluence, by definition, provides more opportunity than poverty.  You may as well ask whether we can give poor children the levels of nutrition, housing, and leisure enjoyed by affluent children.  You can in theory, but then they wouldn't qualify as poor anymore, would they?

I wonder whether Ubinas and other advocates have considered what happens if this program is so successful that it is broadened from the first run of forty schools to the rest of the country.  Surely no one would argue that we should lengthen the school year only for poor children while depriving the affluent of a proven means to better outcomes.  If that's correct, then in the long term won't longer school hours across the board lead to improved performance by everybody, while leaving the achievement gap open?

Truth be told, I'm dubious about the idea that this program will close the gap even in the short term.  It seems to me that advocates are working from the assumption that the differences between low-income and high-income education are purely quantitative.  Not only is such an assumption unfounded, it may be downright dangerous to the principles of comprehensive reform.  If it turns out that poorer students are actually receiving a lower quality education respective to their needs, then this policy of lengthening the school year serves only to give them a larger dose of a medicine that already isn't working.

Considering that longer-hours advocates have acknowledged the advantages given to rich students by access to educational structures other than the school itself, it seems only natural to assume that there is some qualitative difference at play.  Even if poor students were locked inside classrooms twenty-four hours a day, the school would not provide the equivalent of one-on-one tutoring, or social activities tailored to students' individual interests.

Isn't it also conceivable that one of the advantages of extracurricular activities and private tutoring is precisely that they take place outside of the school?  Might not the integration of educational activities into home life actually enhance motivation and foster engagement in the development of personal academic interests?  In other words, we ought not lose sight of the possibility -- indeed the likelihood -- that higher achieving rich students aren't just receiving more education, but that what they're receiving is actually better.

If the current initiative keeps students in school longer yet fails to provide substantially different educational frameworks, I worry that it could have the opposite effect of fostering student engagement.  After all, what can we reasonably expect of the affected students if we give the impression that they're effectively being held hostage for higher grades, or punished with eternal detention because the education system failed them, all while their affluent counterparts run free and learn of their own volition amidst an abundance of diverse opportunities?

Blaming the victim is still pervasive in educational policy because it is often so subtle, being motivated by the best of intentions.  But amidst the quest for silver bullet solutions policymakers steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that socioeconomic disparities may in fact be problems unto themselves.  And so they insist that we can close the achievement gap through initiatives that try to tether one side to the other without addressing the very thing that continues pulling them apart.

Amidst our optimism about simple solutions to complex problems, we have apparently institutionalized naivety.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seems to hold a prominent place in that institution.  Speaking on NPR's All Things Considered, it was he who broadened the optimism about longer hours to include not just educational outcomes, but the overall threats to health and safety that a child faces living in an impoverished urban area:

"When I led the Chicago Public Schools," he said, "we had one child killed due to gun violence every two weeks.  And none of those kids were killed during the school day, and almost none of them were killed at 12 at night or 3 in the morning.  It was at 3 o'clock to 7 o'clock.  And those hours are times of huge anxiety, huge stress."

Now, I wonder, does Mr. Duncan think that the hours of 3 o'clock to 7 o'clock are somehow natural peak times for child gun violence?  Is he suggesting that keeping children in school until 7 o'clock will prevent them from being in danger when they then go home after dark? Or is he just implying that poor children should never go outside?  I doubt very much that being dual captives of school and home would help them to recognize their education as uncovering great opportunities for escape from poverty.

Whether a child in Chicago goes to school for four hours or for fourteen hours, the danger that he faces outside of the halls of learning is a product of his broader environment.  And if meaningful social support structures are missing in that context, they won't be created by longer school hours.  It may even have the opposite effect, since it limits the amount of time and community resources available to create alternative opportunities.

That any children should be in physical danger after school hours is a problem that absolutely must be addressed.  But it isn't a problem of educational policy.  If one suggests that it is, he trivializes the complexity of the serious challenges faced by those living in urban environments.

Poverty must be addressed as an issue unto itself.  All on its own it is a roadblock to the health and safety of children and adults, and it is a roadblock to their educational outcomes.  There are things that can be done in the short term to limit its impact, but it is nave to laud these things as permanent solutions.  There is no permanent solution to the achievement gap between rich and poor students so long as the income gap continues to grow.

Any time governments or non-profits have an idea about how to limit the adverse effects of poverty upon educational achievement I encourage them to try it.  But I also beg them to never portray it as anything more than a stopgap measure, and to never imply that the problems of being in poverty can somehow be solved while still allowing poverty to persist.

  2013, Edward Carney.
Edward Carney is a freelance writer, copywriter, editor, and SEO professional.

The Irascible Professor comments: Much of what Edward says in this article makes sense.  The issue of the appropriate length of both the school day and the school year has been the subject of a number of studies, and generally no strong correlation has been found between the annual number of hours spent in school in a given year and student performance.  Unfortunately, most of the studies have not corrected their results for socio-economic factors.  That said, the length of the school year in the U.S. is about 20 days shorter than the world average.  So it might make some sense to try a few experiments to see if increasing the amount of instructional time by a modest amount makes any difference.


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