Oh, the days draw out like the blade of a knife

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One that cuts both ways, that is.

On one side, longer school days, an idea being pushed right now at the state level, make sense. They allow for more instructional time, as well as for time for all of the activities that seem to be being pushed off the agenda by the need to meet state and federal standards as measured by MCAS. On the other hand, extending the school day will be frightfully expensive, which yesterday’s Lawrence Eagle-Tribune correctly pointed out in an editorial regarding Andover’s participation in a state grant program for longer school days.

This comes on the heels of passionate parent testimony at a recent Methuen school committee hearing to discuss extended day learning in that district. The parents were opposed to the idea.

Like the arguments that can be made both for and against lengthening the school day, my thoughts on the issue are two-fold:

1) There is just no way to get around it, we need to dramatically increase student learning time in America’s public schools. The average student in the United States attends school anywhere from 200 to 600 hours less than his or her counterpart in most of the countries with whom we compete economically. If we don’t close that gap, we can’t really talk about competing. On the other hand, as cities and towns across the Commonwealth face budget deficits, I don’t know where the money will come from to help close that gap. (As an aside, two years ago, Jonathan Rauch offered a possible answer to this question in the Atlantic Monthly. Hint: it has something to do with homework, of which, on top of going to school considerably less than his or her international counterpart, the average American high school student only does 45 minutes.)

2) Maybe the parents in Methuen are right and their children don’t need extended day learning. One size never fits all. However, it may fit some – Boston, perhaps, Worcester, Springfield. Even in those large districts, the size may not fit every school. What if we were to leave the decision to extend the day up to individual schools? Imagine if principals, armed with complete control of their budget (which, by the way, very few principals have much more than a minimal control of) and data on student learning were allowed the autonomy to decide whether extending the day was the best way for his or her school to serve the needs of its students. Call me crazy, but don’t the people who see the students every day, and teach them and assess them and discipline them every day, have a little stronger grasp on what will improve their academic performance than legislators on Beacon Hill or bureaucrats in Malden?