Monday, March 2, 2009

More Than Just Showing Up

You can tell when it's kind of a slow news weekend over at CNN when the lead story on their website for the better part of the day relates to a run-of-the-mill education announcement. Usually the top spot is reserved for coups in foreign countries or something equally dramatic (and visual). But for a pretty good stretch on Saturday, the top story was "Education chief favors longer school year."

As the headline suggests, Education Secretary Arne Duncan would like to keep kids in school for longer days and longer years. While as a former teacher I have trouble arguing that the school year should stretch event longer into June, the research lends some persuasion to the argument. The summer loss of learning that takes place - especially for kids in underserved communities - is huge. In fact, research highlighted in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers showed that the achievement gap can be almost completely attributed to summer learning loss. I think that there's probably a little more to it than that, but the point I'm making here is that it's important. So shortening the summers and having kids in school for longer makes sense on that front.

Where it gets a little bit tricky is that the research doesn't show much benefit to just spending more time in school. Just being there doesn't improve learning. What makes the difference is increased time on task. The mere act of sitting in a school building doesn't make you smarter. Engaging in lessons and learning does. Pretty obvious insight, I know. But here's where it leaves us. In order to make this extra school time effective, we need to make sure that our teachers are effective as they can be and that students are receiving all of the supports they need in order to be successful. Increased school time may be part of a solution, but it's not an entire solution. We still need to look for ways to increase educational quality and living quality across the board for our neediest students.

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