The other day, as I was dropping Jasper off at day care, a mom brought her 5-year-old in to greet Jasper's teacher. Apparently, this little boy had started at the day care when he was a baby, and was now back for the older kids' summer program. Kindergarten operates on a 9 month schedule but, of course, most people's jobs do not. So the family had to make arrangements.
Across the country, most students are now out of school for the summer. It's a fascinating anachronism, and one I've been thinking about a lot lately as I've been reading Christopher Gabrieli and Warren Goldstein's new book Time to Learn: How a New School Schedule is Making Smarter Kids, Happier Parents, and Safer Neighborhoods. Very few American children need to be on the farm for the summer season, which was the original reason for a long summer break. Some 70-plus percent of American women participate in the workforce in some capacity -- not too far off the participation rate for men. That means that in the majority of American families, the only way someone can take the summer off to be with the kids is if mom or dad is a teacher.
Those high labor force participation rates also lead to a school year problem. As Gabrieli and Goldstein point out, most school calendars not only end after 180 days, a "day" is considered 6 hours. "As working parents we have raged against the inefficiency and foolishness of dismissing school at 2:30 in the afternoon," they write. If both parents work full time (or in single parent families) you either have to hire a sitter for the afternoon or rely on "self care." This is when kids get into trouble. As they note, "half of all high school students are sexually active, but we pay less attention to the fact that many teen pregnancies get started between 3 and 6pm." Parents who do want to be home to meet the school bus wind up limiting themselves in their career options.
That might all be fine if a 6-hour school day were best for the kids. But Gabrieli and Goldstein argue that it is not. A longer day has many benefits. "In science, longer classes allow students to carry out experiments from beginning to end in a single session," they write. In NCLB-driven schools that focus on the basics, extra time can create room for music, drama, art, PE. A study hall period can let kids do their homework at school and spend their evenings with their families. A pilot group of schools in Massachusetts that tried extended school days wound up seeing their test scores rise faster than the state average. So the authors encourage all school districts to give the idea a look.
I think it is worth looking at too, though I have some reservations. First, a lot of the school day is already wasted getting kids to be on task, dealing with discipline issues, moving between classes, etc. A year or two ago on this blog, we joked about starting school in January for gifted kids, because they could cover in a half year what it takes the typical class a year to cover. If a 6-hour school day is inefficient, I doubt an 8-hour day will be more efficient. Furthermore, if a school isn't meeting a child's needs in 6 hours, the school won't do it in 8 either. That's a philosophical choice, not a matter of time.
But, as someone who writes about working moms a lot, I do agree that it's ridiculous to send children home to watch television for 3 hours before the standard work day is done. I'm curious what Gifted Exchange readers think about the topic. Should school get out at 5pm?