It’s About Time

The structure of our schools has changed very little in over 150 years. Across the United States, students spend an average of 6.6 hours per day in school (Rhode Island is one of five states where students spend less than 6.3 hours in school each day; in Texas, students are in school almost 7.2 hours per day). Students attend school for an average of 180 days each year, varying from 171 to 184, depending on the state. The length of the school day and the schedule of the school year were set in the 1800s based on very real health concerns: making sure that students wouldn’t overheat or be exposed to filthy urban conditions (before modern sewage), that they weren’t walking to and from school in the dark, and that their brains weren’t being overtaxed. However, we know a lot more about brain development and optimal conditions for learning these days; it’s time to examine our school schedules with fresh eyes.

Our society has changed dramatically since the 1850s, as has the home life of most children – today, almost half of all families (47%) are headed by two working parents, and almost a third (32%) are single-parent households. During the late 19th century, most mothers worked in the home and childcare was not an issue; in fact, many children were needed at home early to help with household chores. In 1900, only 51% of all children ages 5 – 19 were even enrolled in school; compulsory school attendance laws vary by state, and many of their first iterations only required a minimum of three months of school attendance per year. The National School Lunch Act, which established a federally-funded school lunch program, wasn’t passed until 1946; even then, most kids either brought a bag lunch or went home for lunch. Today, most schools have electricity, heat, indoor plumbing, and even air conditioning. Many students take school buses or public transportation to school. Over 30 million children eat a school lunch each day, and over 21 million of them are entitled to that lunch for free or at a reduced price.

Many of the things we do in education are constrained by the school schedule. How many teachers complain that they don’t have enough time to cover all of the material in the curriculum? How many times have we heard high school students complain about the early start time (or their parents complain about the early end time)? What do we know about education and brain development? First, as I wrote in a previous column, we know that several short recesses spread out throughout the school day can help students’ brains synthesize information. Perhaps a longer school day could allow us to accommodate these recesses. Research (along with most teachers and parents) tells us that if a child does not engage in any educational activities over the summer, she will experience the “summer slide” – a loss of up to two months of achievement. Summer reading and math packets help, but they can’t replace the interaction of a student with his peers and teacher. (Many schools have implemented Year-Round Education (YRE) schedules to address this concern.) We know that the most dramatic period of brain development and growth occurs between birth and age five – yet most formal education programs start after that. We know that extended day programs that offer engaging learning opportunities for kids, such as the Providence After School Alliance (PASA) show strong results. We see that high school students perform better when school starts later for them (and schools in 43 states are experimenting with later start times). We know that hungry children can’t learn and thrive, and that many of our children rely on the meals they receive at school; that is why the city of Providence has continued to offer a lunch program this summer, even though our schools are not open.

It is time for us to incorporate all of the things we have learned into our schools, to make them places that are more conducive to learning for all students, and that includes having the courage to challenge the traditional school schedule. Change is scary, and sometimes it is hard; but it is the only way we are going to make things better for our children. Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” We know that we could be providing a better education for our students, and one of the ways to do that is by re-examining our schools’ schedules. Isn’t it about time?

This post was originally published at GoLocalProv.

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