Globe Editorial

Schools need longer day to make up lost ground

May 30, 2010

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STUDENTS IN underperforming urban schools won’t catch up to their peers over the course of the standard 6-hour school day. But give them some extra, well-designed hours, and suddenly much more becomes possible.

A recent Boston Foundation report highlighted the academic achievement of Boston’s charter school students, whose school days average eight hours. That’s the equivalent of 62 school days longer than the BPS. And it’s time well spent, according to the report, especially for students in middle school. In those grades, charter school students in Boston outperform their district counterparts; the gap is about the size of the achievement gap between black and white students in the district. The implication is that, under the right circumstances, an extended school day can help students make up a lot of lost ground.

The most successful urban schools have flexibility in teacher hiring and a trusting culture. But if the goal is to put urban students on par with their counterparts in well-to-do suburbs, then a longer school day is a must. That doesn’t require every extra minute to be spent on core academic subjects. At the 22 district schools across the state now receiving grants for a longer school day, teachers have more time to plan lessons, consult with colleagues, and offer courses and clubs in arts, music, and other enrichment areas.

Serious discussion about the school calendar dates back more than 25 years, when the seminal study “A Nation at Risk’’ recommended a 7-hour school day and a 200-day academic year. Today, there is little disagreement between labor and management on the wisdom of a longer school day. The debate focuses mostly on how to pay for it.

“We don’t disagree with the research,’’ says Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union. Yet the union and school districts remain at odds over if and how much teachers should be remunerated under a current proposal to add an extra hour each day at 12 of the city’s underperforming schools.

Boston teachers shouldn’t be expected to work at the same salaries if their hours suddenly increase by 17 percent. But the teachers union has to realize that charter schools — with their longer days — will be drawing students from the district at an even greater pace now that a change in state law has raised the cap on charter schools. Inflexibility on the part of the union will be costly.

The benefits of extra school time seem clear, and each district must make its own decisions about whether to extend the school day. But Boston and other urban districts can’t succeed with an outdated school calendar.

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