Why Extending School Day and Year Isn’t So Simple

This week’s New Yorker featured a profile (full article available to subscribers only) of education scholar Diane Ravitch, who advocated for education reform in the early stages of the movement but now advocates against reform, after data suggested to her that the earlier reforms were not successful. In the profile, I was reminded of a key issue of debate for the Chicago teachers strike in September. Though data suggests that longer school days and extended school years (more months in school) help close the achievement gap, Chicago teachers opposed these changes. On the face of it, this issue seems simple: Teachers strike because they oppose moves that would raise student achievement. But of course, it isn’t nearly so simple.

Imagine if teachers were paid hourly wages. In this case, extending the amount that they work would come at significant expense to school districts. In most parts of Wisconsin, school must be in session 180 days per year. Extending the school day by an hour thus requires all teachers be paid for an additional 180 hours. If teachers made $20 an hour, then each teacher would earn $3600 more, not including overtime pay. If a school has 50 teachers, that’s another $180,000 per year. Extending the school year causes the same problem. Adding 30 more days to the school year costs $240,000 per year, using the same numbers from above.

Teachers are not paid hourly wages, however, and instead are paid a fixed salary. Thus working more hours and days is a reduction in teacher wages, if their salaries are not adjusted appropriately. In this case, the extension of teacher work times amounts to a money grab by school districts. As such, it isn’t surprising that teachers are upset about it.

Prep time is the second main wrinkle in these plans. Asking teachers to fill an extra hour each day means teachers must have more time to prepare for these hours. Students are unlikely to be receptive to an hour more of math problems or silent reading. Indeed, school administrators and state legislators should be opposed to these types of changes as well. Instead, dynamic lessons are needed on a wider array of subjects. This means teachers will need more time during the day for class prep. Additionally, the wider array of subjects means schools must double down on supporting music, art, and physical education. For some districts, this may require hiring more teachers.

The third problem is student extracurriculars. When extending the school day, students who participate in after-school activities must work an extraordinarily long time. A common school day might last from 8:00 until 3:15. Extending it an hour pushes that time back to 4:15. That means students as young as 5 are working more than 8 hours per day. After-school activities that go for another hour or two mean students are likely working more hours per day than their parents. It is not appropriate to expect more from children than we do from adults.

And what about the teachers who lead these extracurriculars? Their days are extended even further. Think about a football coach who is also a teacher (the norm in most American schools). Her day starts at 7:30 AM or earlier, goes until the regular school day ends at 4:15, and then another 2 hours (or more) after. On many days, she may be working a 12 hour day. If she was paid an hourly wage, she would not only be costing the school district significantly more because of the extended hours; she would also be collecting a lot of overtime pay. She could earn time-and-a-half for upwards of 20 hours per week.

Summer vacation is the final issue for us to consider here. The extended school year robs numerous organizations and businesses of vital labor from high school students and teachers. This is further reason why teacher salaries must be increased if the school year is extended. Many teachers work in the summer to supplement their school year salaries. If the school year goes 12 months, up from the usual 9, then teacher’s salaries, at a minimum must be increased 25%. If a teacher makes $30,000 per year, then this change will cost schools $7500 more per teacher.

The key takeaway from this post is actually for school districts: If you want to do valuable things like extend the school day and year, then you must address these issues first. If you can present solutions to these problems as part of your plan, then you take away the objections of others. You will win converts from teachers and teachers unions the moment you propose good solutions. No everyone will agree, of course, and some who object will be parents who feel their children are overworked to begin with. But presenting your plans as complex solutions to complex problems, rather than as natural changes only an idiot could oppose, will help everyone embrace these positive adjustments.

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