Many proposed solutions for America’s educational disparities require large sums of money – money that frequently does not exist, at least not in the districts that need that money. With state and federal governments lacking financial surpluses that might be used to fund new programs, I believe we need to stop discussing across-the-board plans for longer school years, more early enrichment programs, and smaller class sizes. America has many solvent, well-funded school districts that might be able to put some of these ideas into action but, overall, these are not the districts where students need extra help.
Districts burdened by academic underachievement and high drop-out rates hardly ever have extra resources available. The costs required to lengthen the school year, add extra years of schooling or seriously shrink classes are formidable. High costs generally render these strategies infeasible on a broad-scale basis, and focusing on such universal, costly strategies keeps us from exploring alternatives in scattered districts where we might make immediate improvements to American education.
We need to focus on what we can do to improve our schools right now. That requires approaching school districts on an individual basis. All of America’s school districts are different, and some vary radically. Whether a district is located in Illinois or Texas or Maine affects what may be done. A school without air-conditioning cannot run classes much past the start of June in states with hot summers. Within a given state, the financial strength of an individual district affects what may be done – or whether anything needs to be done at all. Past performance obviously has to be a major consideration in reform efforts: Part of the absurdity of NCLB has been the many “failing” districts that include schools regularly at the top of their state’s testing pool.
What can be done for those schools that are not yet succeeding? In those districts that have air-conditioning, if we cannot significantly lengthen the total number of days in the school year, due to the large costs involved, we can at least spread out that year, with probably manageable extra costs, such as increased utility bills and the expenses incurred by having staff on site for a longer period of time. More and more schools are starting earlier and ending later, a schedule that may prevent some of the learning loss documented from longer summer breaks. Schools are adding fall breaks and otherwise tweaking the schedule so that instead of one long summer break, for example, three shorter breaks are spread throughout the year.
The longer school day is another possible, admittedly somewhat expensive change that would benefit academic underachievers. As I write this, Chicago is coming close to establishing that longer school day, adding 144 teachers to create the new schedule. Coming up with more money to keep underachieving schools open longer has proved a difficult proposition, mostly due to increased staffing costs, but the longer school day will allow Chicago to attack critical problems such as lack of reading time and spotty homework performance.
The longer school day does not have to be enacted across the board — Please, no more sweeping laws! — but could reasonably be based on academic performance. The school district where I live does not need to add hours to the school day. Almost 100% of its students go on to higher education after high school, one of the main reasons why my local high school was chosen as one of the top 100 high schools in the country. The district where I worked two years ago, though, is creating a new charter school and one selling point for that school was the plan for a longer school day. The students where I taught had not been succeeding on the standard 8:00 to 2:45 school day. The new school was planned to start at 8:30 and run until 4:00. Those extra minutes could only be beneficial. Somehow the district had also budgeted a 200 day year for the charter school, adding 20 days to the school year.