04/30/2012 08:00 pm ET Updated Jun 29, 2012

A Matter of Time

NPR recently aired a story on former chief of staff and current mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel's plan to extend the school day from one of the nation's shortest -- five hours and 45 minutes -- to one of its longest -- seven hours and 30 minutes. Emanuel claims that his vision is to add the equivalent of 40 days worth of school to public schools in the Chicago area, an endeavor which he contends will increase student performance and enhance graduation rates. But, bearing in mind that having a school day lasting under six hours can potentially disrupt a working parent's schedule, I caution against following the "more class time = more learning" trap.

Now, it may just be that I'm not far enough out of high school to be able to relish the importance of each and every hour of every day, but, from my perspective and from the perspectives of many students today, an additional eight weeks of school tacked onto a year is nothing short of a death sentence. And if the administration were to extend the Princeton semester from 12 to 16 weeks -- well, we'd see how much that would enhance our graduation rates.

The fact of the matter is that it isn't the quantity but rather the quality of an education that determines a learner's success. This commonly held, simple truth seems to be oddly absent in the thinking of both decision-makers and many parents as we seek to raise the next generation of Americans. In a culture increasingly enamored with numbers, figures and quotas, it's difficult to take a step back from the numbers game of education and contemplate what the ultimate goals of an education should be. Rather than spending money needlessly on extra seat time for our public school system, we should look at the factors which actually promote student success and well-being.

One such tenet, and something which Emanuel wants to address, is the disappearance of recess as a mainstay of schools. Only half of public elementary schools in Chicago maintain a scheduled recess, and of this 50 percent many have a laughably short break -- some as low as 10 minutes. Many of my fondest -- or only -- memories of my early education are of time spent outside on the field, playing soccer with friends or hitting a tetherball. Even as a "grown-up," I still look forward to the 2.5 hour-long recess that is track practice, a time when I can shrug off the daily worries of academic life and let my body do the thinking for a while.

Allowing children -- and people in general -- an extended period of time to be active in a social setting can go much farther in improving focus and capacity for learning than any number of additional hours of instruction. The difference between a 55-minute class and a 50-minute class is negligible. The difference between no recess and a 40-minute break is enormous.

Artistic and creative development are other areas with critical impacts on a student's ability to perform and create. In a world with increasingly open possibilities, teaching people to think outside the box and to be able to express those divergent thoughts is one of the most important things we can do. Emanuel's proposed plan would allegedly provide time for the visual arts, music and foreign languages -- all good goals.

What his plan implies, however, is that we need to make "extra" time for these pursuits. There is still this entrenched hierarchy in which more measurable, quantitative aspects of a student are valued above the more inventive ones. The thinking goes: "Arts and music are all great, but only after we have x amount of hours of reading and math." More free-form, unconventional forms of learning shouldn't be viewed as antagonistic or separate from our educations but rather as part and parcel of them.

If converting math, reading or writing time into drawing, music or language means abridging sections of the former in favor of the latter, that isn't necessarily bad. Diversifying the educational experience of our youth is vital to keeping them interested and motivated to continue exploring their intellectual capabilities. Short bursts of effective and well-delivered instruction are vastly more valuable than the protracted, over-scheduled stints which Emanuel's suggestions could create.

We need to stop viewing education -- both our own as Princetonians and that of children across the country -- as the sum of all the lectures we attend, papers we write and time we spend looking at a blackboard -- or Blackboard. Instead of trying to extend the school day, policy-makers like Emanuel should seek to promote those things which ultimately enhance learning: social free time, the arts, efficient lesson plans. Only when we rid ourselves of this obsession with over-structuring and numbers can we improve education in a fundamental and meaningful way.

Nathan Mathabane is a geosciences major from Portland, Ore. He can be reached at