On School Time, It’s Better, Not More (JLF)

Our good friend Terry Stoops from the John Locke Foundation had an absolutely stellar column in yesterday’s News & Record, blasting Terry Grier’s hell-bent movement to involuntarily extend your child’s school day and year. I’ve made mention many times here recently that it was the JLF that provided data in a recently-released report suggesting that extended days/years do not necessarily translate into greater student success.

Here is the column, in its entirety (thanks to Mr. Stoops for providing it directly):


On School Time, It’s Better, Not More


 Among the many ideas to raise student performance, well-intentioned legislators and school officials, including Guilford County Superintendent Terry Grier, have proposed that public schools extend the school day and year.  In theory, additional instructional time would allow teachers to thoroughly teach material and allow students more time to learn it.  However, research suggests that raising the quality of the instruction, not lengthening of the school day, is the best way to increase student achievement. 

Proponents of longer school days and years speculate that 1) countries that outperform the United States on international tests spend much more time in school and 2) this additional time gives nations a competitive advantage on international tests.  Nevertheless, comparisons of test results and instructional time show that the more is not necessarily better.  According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), students in the United States spend an average of 4.7 school hours per week, or 169 hours per year, on mathematics instruction.  The average for the 29 OECD nations is 3.8 hours per week and 140 hours per year.  In other words, students in the United States receive the equivalent of six more weeks of mathematics instruction than the average nation.

 Given the additional instructional time, we would expect our students to score above the average on mathematics assessments, but the opposite is true.  Students in the United States score far below average on tests such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) math exam, a test given every three years to a sample of students in each OECD country.  On the 2003 PISA math test, students in the United States ranked 24th out of the 29 countries tested. 

To examine this phenomenon in greater detail, a group of researchers from Penn State University conducted a statistical analysis that compared instructional time and student performance on international assessments, including the PISA and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).  Their study, “Instructional Time and National Achievement: Cross National Evidence,” concluded that there was no significant correlation between instructional time in math, science, reading, and civics and test scores on international assessments of those subjects.

The report showed that a nation’s total instructional time had little bearing on achievement.  Tenth-grade students in Mexico have the most instructional time in school of any nation tested, over 1,100 hour per year, but posted very low test scores.  On the other hand, 10th-grade students in Finland spend 850 instructional hours in school every year and had among highest scores of any participating nation. According to the report, 10th graders in the United States spend an average of 990 instructional hours in school every year, 45 hours above the international average and in the top 25 percent of nations in total instructional time. Still, researchers found no consistent relationship between instructional hours in the United States and achievement on international assessments.

The researchers’ policy recommendation could not be more direct, “Do not waste resources in marginal increases in instructional time, as long as the system falls within world norms.  If there is a choice between using resources to increase time versus improving teaching and the curriculum, give priority to the latter.” 

Indeed, the costs associated with extending the school day and year would be substantial.  Superintendent Terry Grier estimated that it would cost between $250,000 and $500,000 per school to increase the amount of time students spend in school, but the cost may be even higher.  Massachusetts provides an additional $1,300 per student for schools that extend the school day.  At the Massachusetts funding level, it would cost taxpayers an additional $650,000 per year to implement a longer school day at a typical 500-student elementary school in North Carolina.  That means that a modest pilot program at five elementary schools would cost $3.25 million per year.

 Unfortunately, none of these concerns has stopped states from forging ahead with pilot programs that lengthen the school day and year.  The Expanded Learning Time Initiative in Massachusetts increased instructional time by as much as 30 percent.  School officials in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C. are working to lengthen their public schools’ day and year.  Howard Lee, chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Education, said that similar initiatives would eventually emerge on the state board’s agenda. Regardless of the length of the school day and year, high-performing schools around the world employ strong leaders, focus on measurable results, and maintain very high expectations for all teachers, parents, and students.  It’s about time that our public schools focus on the same. 

Stoops is education policy analyst at the John Locke Foundation.


E.C. 🙂



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