Learning time: the long and short of it

New York is trying to move toward the front lines of a movement to extend the amount of time children spend learning in school.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his State of the State address last week, proposed a plan to extend school days or move to year-round schooling, getting rid of lengthy summer breaks.

There seems to be general agreement in the local school communities that Cuomo’s proposal would be a good thing if it’s done correctly, but “the devil’s always in the details,” said Saranac Lake Central School District Superintendent Jerry Goldman.

As state aid to schools shrinks and budget belts tighten at area school districts more and more each year, funding additional learning time – and getting unions to agree to it – may be difficult.

The benefits

“Clearly, the longer kids are in school, the more opportunity we have to reach them at any level – for struggling learners as well as our advanced learners,” Tupper Lake Central School District Superintendent Seth McGowan told the Enterprise in a phone interview Wednesday. “Generally speaking, I think every educator would agree.”

In his State of the State, Cuomo cited experiments with adding more school time from recent years at schools in Harlem and Massachusetts. Those schools have closed the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students, raised standardized test scores and increased college acceptance rates.

Besides those benefits, Keene Central School Superintendent Dan Mayberry said more learning time would address some of the issues that are a problem now in education.

“There’s too much curriculum packed into the time in which you have to teach it,” Mayberry said. “All of that came directly from the state.”

That gets teachers stuck in a rut where they have to cover a lot of material and can’t get into depth on any topic, Mayberry said. He said the common core learning standards that are starting to be implemented encourage teachers to teach fewer things in more depth, “but I think we’re still short on time.”

Educators acknowledge that the current school calendar and day are outdated, with a schedule created to accommodate farming families during agrarian times and then tweaked to keep children out of factory work when that became popular at the turn of the 20th century.

“There’s been no major reconceptualization to the school day or time since the Industrial Revolution,” said Lake Placid Central School District Superintendent Randy Richards. “It’s time we need to re-think the whole delivery model.”

Most educators agree that getting rid of two- to three-month-long summer breaks in favor of more, shorter breaks throughout the year would help create a more consistent learning atmosphere. That would help kids retain knowledge better and eliminate the need to teach things multiple times.

In addition to increased student success in academics, there could be other benefits to extending learning time as well. The experiment with extended learning time in Harlem brought about results like dramatic reductions in teen pregnancies.

Plus it could save parents money on child care if their children are in school for a longer period of time during the day. Jane Whitmore, vice president of the Tupper Lake Central School District Board of Education, has two sons who attend L.P. Quinn Elementary School in Tupper Lake. She said most working parents would be relieved to be able to spend less on child care, though she said she would never look to the schools to be a child-care scapegoat.

“If it were solid instructional time, I would imagine any parent would want as much learning time for their child as possible,” Whitmore said.

Re-imagining school time

Several superintendents said that just tacking a few hours onto the end of the school day is not necessarily enough. The entire school format needs to be re-examined.

“We continue to ramrod a one-size-fits-all learning method to students,” Richards said.

Goldman said the fixed school day is a thing of the past. He said he’d like to see the school day start to wrap itself around the rest of students’ lives, not the other way around.

“I think the high school of the future has got to look a little bit more flexible than that,” Goldman said. “I think it needs to look a little more like a college schedule.”

Especially at upper grade levels, he likes the idea of an 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. school day, where students come and go depending on their class schedule.

Richards said he thinks the state needs to re-think its seat time requirements. Some students sit in a class they could easily test out of just to have enough hours in school to meet criteria, when a student’s time might be better spent moving on to a higher-level class and learning more.

He noted that more flexible school time could include online learning blended with classroom work.

There are also problems in the current school day with how time is used. Some classes pack as much learning as possible into the short time allotted, but some of the current school day is a waste of time. Schedules that include homerooms and study halls should be looked at, Goldman said.

“It’s true in any environment, really: How you use time is critical,” Goldman said.

McGowan agreed that there is probably time that can be used better within the current school day, but he said he doesn’t want to see the parts of school that encourage the development of social skills to be eliminated in the name of the four main academic subjects: English, math, science and social studies.

“I think that there’s a balance to be had between direct instruction and other things that we do,” McGowan said. “I would just be afraid that a long day means more assessment-driven instruction rather than creating a better balance between academics, social and personal growth. You just can’t leave one out.”

Paradigm shift

Changes to learning time would be a significant paradigm shift from a school schedule that is long ingrained in our culture.

Families’ typical summer holidays, and students’ opportunity to participate in things like summer camp, could be impacted. Students who spend their vacation working a summer job might have a hard time fitting work into a different schedule.

School athletics could have a difficult time adjusting as well. Even with current dismissal times, student-athletes sometimes have to leave school early to travel for a game. Mayberry said that stresses students out.

“I think sports are important for a lot of students, and it would be hard to watch them have to make that choice: ‘I can’t play basketball because I’ll miss math class a certain number of times,'” Mayberry said.

Because of many of these issues, plus the idea of working more hours, administrators are worried that teachers’ unions will have a hard time accepting such significant changes. Mayberry noted that some people may think that teachers only work as long as students are in school but, when it’s done correctly, teaching involves plenty of time beyond that.

McGowan said educators in Tupper Lake have already shown a resiliency in the last few years through a significant round of layoffs and cost-cutting measures, and a willingness to do what it takes to improve education for students.

“We see that there’s a lot at stake, and we’re absolutely willing to change our paradigm,” McGowan said. The job is “thankless with outstanding rewards,” like the pride an educator feels every time a student graduates, has a breakthrough or just learns something new.

“So it’s worth whatever paradigm pain we go through. That’s why we’re there.”

Student buy-in

Several educators noted that one of the biggest issues is making sure there’s buy-in from the students. Former Keene Central School Superintendent Cynthia Johnston, who still works for the district on a part-time basis, said students need to see any extra time in school as a benefit to them, not a punishment.

But some students already recognize that a longer school day could have value. Ashley Nunez, a senior at Saranac Lake High School, used to live in Georgia. She said the school day at the school she went to there ended at 3:30 p.m. and some classes lasted about an hour, while the SLHS day wraps up at 2:15 p.m. and classes are as short as 35 minutes.

“I take a long time to learn, and since the classes here are shorter, it’s harder for me,” Nunez said while taking a break from an online global studies course Wednesday afternoon.

She said she wouldn’t mind going back to longer school days if it meant she had enough time to learn.

Saranac Lake High School student Thomas Lester said that, as a senior, he is only taking about three classes, so he already has a lot of down time at school.

“It’s almost just like I’m waiting for school to end,” Lester said.

So for him, more time in school doesn’t seem like it would be valuable. But some of the younger students have more classes and more requirements to tackle, so Lester said longer school days may help those students more.

He noted that the school already has an afternoon activity period after regular dismissal, which is made in part for students who need extra help to get more individualized instruction from teachers. Lester said few students use that period, so if school officials were looking for more time in the school day, it might be a a good idea to encourage students to make use of it.

Whitmore said her young children would enjoy more school time.

“My kids love school,” Whitmore said. “It wouldn’t bother them to be there another half-hour, 45 minutes.”

The cost

Cuomo’s proposal for more learning time so far has been vague. According to his State of the State booklet, he wants to follow the model Massachusetts has been using and let districts come up with their own way to make it work. He plans to set up a competitive grant program that will award money to districts that develop plans meeting four criteria.

“He’s been very broad in putting it out there last week in his address,” Richards said. “So, you know, we need more details.”

The problem is the question of how much money districts will get, if they can get it.

Superintendents were quick to note that school districts are already feeling several years of decreasing or frozen state aid in the midst of significant inflation of personnel and health-care costs.

“We’re getting squeezed like a grape in terms of state aid,” Goldman said.

And extending the school day or year might not be cheap. Mayberry said there are a number of costs that would be associated with extended learning time.

“It’s not just salaries,” Mayberry said. “You’re going to have the lights on more, the heat on more.”

If school is in session more throughout the summer, air conditioning will need to be used more when it’s hot out, he said. He also noted the price of transporting kids to and from school would rise if there are more days.

Goldman called it disingenuous of Cuomo to suggest such sweeping changes but to fund it in such a way.

“That’s frankly just grandstanding for public consumption,” Goldman said. “That’s unacceptable to me. He’s the governor; he knows better. You’re going to make this a competitive grant situation? How seriously are people going to take that? If it’s important to do, it should be important to do, period.”

It puts smaller school districts that don’t have grant writers at a disadvantage, he said.

“Most of these rural districts are just hamstrung when it comes to these kinds of things,” Goldman said.

If the governor and Legislature could create a clear set of guidelines, schools would have to comply, McGowan said. But leaving it up to the districts to develop their own plan could be a waste of resources.

“You’re talking about millions of man hours,” McGowan said. “There’s a balance to be had between top-down government and creating an unreasonable burden on schools and shifting those burdens from legislators.”

Educators said they will be interested to see what Cuomo includes in his budget for the program. Cuomo is set to unveil his budget proposal next week.

“Don’t tell me what you value; show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value,” McGowan said. “If he values the things he’s talking about, then he’ll include them in his budget. If not, then it’s just talk.

“I challenge him to do that, as well as the Legislature. They have a part in this also.”

If the money issue can be worked out, though, educators seem optimistic that extended learning time could be a positive change.

“If it’s a collaborative effort from all sides involved to make it work, I think it can work,” Mayberry said.

Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or jcollier@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.