When Nashville Classical kindergarteners are getting off of the bus, their peers across town have been home for hours. An eight-hour school day for kindergarten may sound excessive, but at this public charter school, that’s how long the school day needs to be.
“I think it’s important to think about all of the things you want to accomplish in a school day, and then make sure that you have the time to accomplish all of those things,” Charlie Friedman, Nashville Classical’s school director, says. “We didn’t start by saying we have to have an extended day, and we didn’t start by saying we have to end at 4:00 p.m.”
When Friedman built the schedule for his school, he knew he wanted to offer recess, physical education, three hours of literacy, hands-on science, and a foreign language every single day.
“Our students are learning Spanish while other kids in the community are walking home from school,” he says. “Once we had all of those things laid out, we built a day that was about an hour longer than the average school day.”
Extended school days, or extended learning time, have become ubiquitous among charter schools and lower-performing schools looking to improve academic achievement. The average school day in the United States varies from state to state, but most stays require approximately 180 days for the school year to be complete. Each state’s Department of Education determines its own minimum school day length and stipulations for fulfilling the 180 days. The way states add this time up can get complicated, but typically if schools or districts choose to add time to the legal minimum school day, the day would be considered extended. For most states, 180 days of school adds up to somewhere between approximately 900 and 1200 hours of instruction per year, which is actually relatively high on a global scale. Even Finland, whose test scores consistently top international rankings, doesn’t have compulsory schooling until age seven, and their school day is shorter than a typical American day.
Still, given the wide socioeconomic gaps and educational disparities across the United States, many schools, charter networks, and districts have turned to extended learning time as a pragmatic reform. States like Massachusetts have spearheaded pilot programs for longer school days and have seen strong results. In 2013, D.C. Public Schools implemented extended hours for eight of its struggling schools and saw some of its largest gains in math and reading since 2008.
Although many disadvantaged schools are considering a longer day, there are a lot of unanswered questions: How does this affect students? How can districts cover the increased costs? And perhaps most importantly, does this extra time in the classroom actually make low-income students more competitive with their peers?
The teachers I spoke with said extended school days can work, but only if the extra time is used effectively. If the hours at school seem wasted, students, families, and teachers don’t get invested—their buy-in is crucial.
Peter Smith* directs a Philadelphia high school that extends its day—but only by a half an hour for students. Hours run from 8:00 a.m. to 3:17 p.m. After school, teachers are required to stay for office hours from 3:17 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. While teachers are in school for an hour and 15 minutes longer than other teachers in the district, they actually teach less than they would in a traditional public school.
“Teachers are totally on board,” Smith says. “Teachers love having that designated time [after school] to be with students, and it does free up their time during the other parts of the school day, and parents love it—especially at the high school level.”
Extended school days can also provide structured planning time for teachers. Without this built-in time, teachers end up working additional hours after school and on the weekends, clocking in as much time as they would if the day were extended—if not more.
Andrew Davis* was a teacher at a charter school in Memphis that extended its day. In his original teaching schedule, he was given two hours a day to plan and collaborate with other teachers. “[It] was great,” he says, “but since I taught two grade levels, it was definitely needed anyways.”
His school originally had an academic day that lasted from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and students would stay late if they had extracurricular activities. Davis would arrive early and stay late to coach cross-country, typically clocking in a 13- or 14-hour day.
“It was exhausting,” he says of those first two years. But, the school was “able to offer longer class periods, build in restroom breaks and student celebrations, and provide teachers with time for meetings and planning time inside the school day so that we had less out-of-school-time meetings.”
Despite being able to provide extra time for teacher planning and class periods, the 10-and-a-half-hour day wore on both teachers and students, creating teacher burnout and student behavior issues. Since then, the school day has been shortened and now ends at 4:00 p.m. “When we shifted to the shorter school day, along with other changes, we saw much more positive student response to the school and a greater school culture with less behavior issues in the school,” he says.
Davis stresses that longer than eight hours of mandatory schooling is overwhelming both for students and teachers. But building extra time into the school day for non-academic purposes—like student interventions, character development, and enrichment activities—can be productive for students.
“I think there can be benefits to an extended school day, but most of them do not come in the form of academic achievement,” says Natalie Jackson*, a teacher from Indiana who works in a charter with lengthened hours. “The extended school day allows us to be more flexible to build in additional opportunities with our students, which ideally invests them in school and builds their character without missing too much class time.”
Besides, some say the school day is an outdated relic, anyway—with ever-more testing requirements and a yawning achievement gap between rich kids and poor kids, now seems like a great time to experiment with classroom hours.
*These names have been slightly altered at the request of the interviewees.