Educators: School year comes up short

The benefits of more school days are studied as a way to improve learning.
Sunday, March 27, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:16 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

In America, most students will attend more than 2,300 days of school from kindergarten through 12th grade. In Japan, most students will have attended the same number of school days by eighth grade.

To ensure an equal opportunity for academic achievement, the number of days in a school year could increase in Columbia schools.

“We’re competing in a global market economy,” said William Bainbridge, president of the SchoolMatch Institute at the University of Dayton. “Students in other wealthy ‘information age’ countries receive twice as much instruction as American students in core academic areas during their secondary school years.”

On average, American students attend school 180 days a year, compared to 190 days in the United Kingdom and 190 to 280 days in eastern Asian nations.

The estimated academic hours devoted to math, science, language and social studies during the final four years of secondary education in Japan, France and Germany are more than double the hours spent on the same subjects in the United States.

“Educators have been disappointed by the performance of American students on international exams, particularly in math and science,” Bainbridge said.

Rock Bridge High School Principal Bruce Brotzman said the structure and time of the school day has remained constant, but the level of performance has changed.

“Schools in the United States have an agrarian schedule that’s not in keeping with the rest of the world,” Brotzman said.

Amelia Cottle, Rock Bridge Booster Club president and parent, liked the concept of a longer school year but said the amount of time spent in the classroom should also be considered.

“Younger kids perform better in the morning, and older kids perform better in the afternoon,” Cottle said.

Bainbridge recommended extending the school year by 10 days or two weeks and shortening the day for younger students to six or seven hours. This schedule prepares students for the workload after high school and provides time for internships that help students gain experience in their field of interest.

“Everyone needs to be prepared for something upon graduating high school, either college or some form of gainful employment,” Bainbridge said.

Bainbridge also said vacations should not last longer than eight weeks.

“Students certainly lose some ground over the three-month break,’’ Brotzman said. “It’s not the best way for learning to occur. In 10 to 15 years, we might have more frequent breaks instead of taking off for a fourth of the year at once.”

Lisa Reed, parent of a Rock Bridge student, said she would support a longer school year if there were more frequent breaks during the calendar year but

didn’t see much benefit to adding 10 days at the end.

“There’s still a long break during the summer when retention rates decrease,” Reed said.

Columbia Board of Education President J.C. Headley said an extension of the school year is not likely within three to five years because the school district is not ready to finance it. He said longer school years would be beneficial to students falling behind.

“The more time you spend on task, the better you get,” Headley said. “The less time you spend away from school, the better your retention.”

Brotzman notes that the idea of a longer school year might not be well received at first.

“Initially, I could see kids not being excited about it,” she said, “but kids do identify largely with their school experience and might warm up to the idea.”

Bainbridge said longer school years might also help schools and students reach annual yearly progress goals set by the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The shortfall placed upon our students by the 180-day school year will make a more significant difference than setting standards for students,” Bainbridge said.

“At the very least, policymakers should mandate a longer school year in those districts where the students’ overall performance on standardized tests is lower than the national or state averages.”

Cheryl Cozette, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said summer programs help students to some degree.

“It may get to a point where we require or strongly recommend summer school for certain students,” Cozette said.

Aimee Nerling, parent of a West Junior High School student, said longer school years wouldn’t hurt anyone but shouldn’t be required.

“For kids that struggle in school, it would be a nice thing,” Nerling said. “For the average student, I don’t think it’s necessary.”

Establishing a longer school year would require adjustments.

“One factor that needs to be considered is time,’’ Brotzman said. “Some kids need more time to reach those standards. Even if we were not to lengthen the school year right now, the day, hour and year should be lengthened for all students that need help meeting those requirements.”

Teachers would also benefit from a longer year.

“Going to a more year-round schedule would be a way to bring salaries up and justify the increase in the minds of politicians and policymakers,” Bainbridge said. “We tend to believe that teachers need to be in front of the class all the time; that’s something unique to the United States.”

With a longer school year, Bainbridge said, teachers would require more planning time.

“They also need time to collaborate, improve their skills and prepare curriculum,” he said.

Brotzman also said extending the school year would likely mean an increase in teachers’ salaries because they use the time students are out of school to keep up with curriculum and improve themselves professionally.

“I think the school year will be longer for all students,’’ Brotzman said. “We’ll especially begin to see lengthened learning time for those students that need it. We’re not going to achieve our goal by working harder, we’re going to achieve it by working smarter.”

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