The Case for a Longer School Year (and What Conservatives Can Do About It)

11/16/2007 11:26 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What I'm about to say may not make me popular with my kids, or those jokers who produce after-school cartoons, but I'm going to say it anyway -- America needs to rethink the amount of time our students spend in school.

More than half of the freshmen admitted to the California State University system in 2006 had to take remedial math or English courses. Most of them were among the top third of high school graduates in the state and had earned a B average or better in high school. Local trade union apprenticeship programs are also struggling to find qualified applicants. Jonathan Mitchell, training director at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 490 in Concord, New Hampshire, says that last year about half of applicants failed a required entry test in math and reading.

There are many reasons why our students are unprepared, but one major one is simple: we don't spend enough time in school.

Right now, the American school calendar is essentially a hold-over from an agrarian-centered society in which students (and teachers) needed time off to do chores around the farm. Quaint perhaps, but now that we've moved into a high-tech global economy it's becoming clear that we are failing to give our kids the skills they need in a 180-day school year.

Simply put, students in other nations are working harder, working longer, and learning more than ours. On average, students in nations participating in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study spent 193 days annually in school, compared with only 180 in the U.S. Over 12 years, this deficit translates into a gap of nearly one full school year. If we want to have a prayer of keeping our kids at the top of the global food chain, something's got to give.

Now, this isn't an issue that most Americans want to talk about. We tend to think that American kids are more "well-rounded" than students in other countries, and that that's more important than test scores. But being well-rounded means more knowledgeable, not more socialized. We are kidding ourselves if we think our kids can compete with students in India and China for the jobs of the future on six-hour school days.

I know that some will question if it's the federal government's role to set the hours students spend in school. Let me be clear -- the president shouldn't be the one to set the school calendar, but they can promote policies that increase time for learning, so that we can give our kids the academic support they need.

When a president talks about an issue, and urges action from their state and local government colleagues, it doesn't necessarily result in a federal mandate, and we don't need to have knee-jerk reactions against an idea just because a president suggests it be given attention.

In fact, my model is really about the president encouraging other states to emulate and learn from states who have implemented these plans. Take Massachusetts. Two years ago, the state created a grant program that allows schools to add 300 hours to the school schedule in order to provide more time for academics, enrichment, and personalized attention.

The extra time seems to be working. A recent Herald News article proclaimed, "The state's experimental Extended Learning Time program is paying off immediate results in the form of Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam scores."

And at Clarence R. Edwards Middle School in Boston, the sixth-grade math scores jumped to the 68 percentile this year from last year's score of 48 percent after implementing the extended time plan. The seventh-grade math scores rose to 67 percent, compared with 46 percent last year; and the eighth grade math scores are 53 percent, as opposed to 45 percent last year.

National leaders -- including the presidential candidates -- should use their platform to call attention to successful state innovations like that. And they can commit to offering local schools the encouragement and support to expand learning time if they choose to do so, just as in Massachusetts.

And we don't even have to look at expanded time through a state government lens. Many charter schools across the country use their flexibility to provide more time for learning. At charter schools in the KIPP network, students begin each day at 7:30 a.m. and end at 5 p.m. Half-day classes are held on Saturdays, and students attend summer sessions spanning 2-4 weeks. All told, KIPP students get about 60 percent more class time than their peers, and KIPP schools are routinely recognized for their high performance.

It shouldn't be an issue of politics either. Americans have long been ready for movement around this issue. In polling conducted by The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation prior to launching the ED in '08 campaign, both Republicans and Democrats showed significant support for expanded learning time.

In fact, when asked, "If there were a national education reform that gave students more individualized support in school, including more quality learning time by extending the actual amount of time spent in school, would you support it?" Seventy-eight percent of Republicans were in favor, only slightly behind Democrats at 83 percent. That's a pretty impressive majority.

While these changes must ultimately occur at the state and local level, we first need leaders that are willing to take action in reforming our schools, rather than continuing to watch American students stumble along in an antiquated system. The end goal, after all, is ensuring that our kids will have the skills they need to be competitive -- and I know that's something conservatives can get behind.