More vs. More of the Same

by Robert Pondiscio
March 22nd, 2010

While you were engaged in non-essential, non-education activities on Saturday such as grocery shopping, attending your kid’s little league game, or doing your part for the economy by hitting the mall, Fordham’s Checker Finn was on the job, asking why kids aren’t in school on Saturday.   His piece in the Wall Street Journal (which it should be noted, used to publish only Monday through Friday) argues Saturday morning shouldn’t be for cartoons.  It should be for school.

In the face of budget shortfalls, school districts in many parts of the United States today are moving toward four-day weeks. This is despite evidence that longer school weeks and years can improve academic performance. Schoolchildren in China attend school 41 days a year more than most young Americans—and receive 30% more hours of instruction. Schools in Singapore operate 40 weeks a year. Saturday classes are the norm in Korea and other Asian countries—and Japanese authorities are having second thoughts about their 1998 decision to cease Saturday-morning instruction. This additional time spent learning is one big reason that youngsters from many Asian nations routinely out-score their American counterparts on international tests of science and math.

His piece, “The Case for Saturday School,” points out that  an American kid at 18, “will have spent just 9% of his or her hours on this planet under the school roof (and that assumes full-day kindergarten and perfect attendance) versus 91% spent elsewhere.”

I appreciate the impulse, but the first question that I always ask about extended day and weekend classtime is what exactly will be going on that there’s no time for during regular school hours?   If it’s simply more of what’s not working during the week, well, no thanks.  I’ve banged on this drum endlessly over the years, but the real enemy of achievement in low-performing schools is the time lost to disruption and wasted on curriculum with no caloric content, problems which, to be fair, Finn alludes to.   Still, using Saturday to make up for time squandered Monday through Friday doesn’t strike me as wise, and you don’t have to be a unionista to suggest that a six-day work week for teachers might be a bridge too far. 

Make Saturday school voluntary and about “more” not “more of the same” and I’d start to get excited.  There has to be a bigger payoff than raising reading scores from “below dismal” to ”approaching minimally acceptable” on laughably low-bar state tests.   Maybe it would do more for national economic competitiveness (if one insists on making that the endgame of education) if we used afternoons and weekends to help low-SES kids who are already at or above grade level and capable of holding their own in elite educational settings a chance to close the knowledge gap with more privileged peers at high-achieving schools.  Those are the kind of kids who are starved for oxygen right now.


  1. Extending the time spent in school may be a very good idea for kids from disadvantaged homes but a very BAD idea for middle-class and affluent kids. If anything, the latter would probably benefit from SHORTER school days, weeks, and years, particularly in the primary grades.

    There was a very interesting statistic in the book “Intelligence and How to Get It” by Richard Nisbett that kids from affluent families made nearly as much academic gain during the 2 months of summer vacation as they did in the 10 months spent in school.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — March 22, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

  2. I’d love to know more about that statistic, CW. I’m not familiar with it. But I agree with you about shorter school days. One’s own experience isn’t universal, obviously, but my daughter, in my opinion, has gained as much non-cognitive benefit this year from playing on a competitive volleyball club team as anything she’s accrued from her school. It’s a serious commitment, time-wise. If I had to choose between pulling her off that team (they practice during the week and play tournaments on weekends) or pulling her out of her school, at this point I’d choose the latter (God, I pray my wife doesn’t read this).

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 22, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

  3. Robert,

    Finn’s article was thought provoking but the most alluring aspect of the piece for me was…guess what? Distance learning.

    “Over the long run, technology holds much potential to boost student learning time in flexible ways and at modest cost. We can stipulate that kids are addicted to it; that “virtual” instruction can happen at very nearly any time or place; and that well-designed distance-learning programs (and suitable hardware) enable greater individualization of learning, with each child moving at his/her own pace, diving deeper when warranted, and going back over things they didn’t quite understand the first time. This already happens in the best online schools, of which the U.S. already has several dozen, often operating statewide, such as the Florida Virtual School and Ohio Virtual Academy.”

    Enable greater individualization of learning, with each child moving at his or her own pace. Ah yes, I knew there was a familiar intonation in there somewhere, tempered by a healthy dose of common sense and pragmatism. It certainly was not Checker’s comparison to Asian school hours and years without so much as a mention of their heightened levels of stress and suicide.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 22, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

  4. I have long thought increasing the length of the school year would be a good thing to do. My observation, based on my experience, both as a child and as a parent, is that mostly what kids do in the summer is complain about nothing to do. Well, maybe it’s not that bad. There’s lots to do, but much of it seems to me not particularly worthwhile. Wouldn’t a one month summer vacation still allow for summer camps and family travel? I’ve never been particularly attracted to the idea of lengthening the school day. I happen to think those after school piano lessons are also very important, and time to catch up on homework is important, and time to do a lot of other things that enrich childhood and education.

    There is one issue that I think is never adequately addressed – the assumption of linearity. Linearity in this sense is the relation between time as input and learning as output. Is that a linear relation, or a non-linear relation? And how can we know? If the relation is linear, then 20% more time put in will produce 20% more achievement in learning, and 10% less time put in would result in 10% less learning. If the relation is not linear, then 20% more time put in might produce 30% more learning, or perhaps 10% more learning, or perhaps 5% less learning. How can we know?

    Critics of a longer school day or year often argue that if we can’t get the job done in the time we spend now then we can’t get the job done with extra time. This seems to be assuming non-linearity, or assuming diminishing returns, or even negative returns. Such critics might be right, but I’ll not take their word for it.

    Here’s a thought experiment that might help. Is it good for a fifth grade to spend two months in social studies studying colonial American history? It sounds good to me, though I don’t have much of an idea what is appropriate or customary for fifth grade social studies. And is it good to spend another two months studying Latin America? Again it sounds good to me. I provides knowledge of value in its own right and it lays a foundation on which to study a lot of other things in subsequent grades. And is it good to spend two months on how American government works? And is it good to spend another two months on Europe? All that sounds good to me. That is four topics, at two months each, plus maybe a month taken away for whatever distractions that must be accommodated, and we have the regular nine month school year. Now is it good to spend another two months in fifth grade social studies on the middle east? It sounds good to me. That learning would include a lot of knowledge that I consider valuable in its own right, and it strengthens the foundation for learning a lot of other things in subsequent grades. But that brings us up to ten months, which perhaps will fit in an eleven month school year, again allowing a month for necessary distractions.

    What I have described is a hypothetical 25% increase in instructional time in fifth grade social studies. The assumption of linearity means accomplishment will be increased 25%. That sounds good to me. One may certainly ask at what cost this increase in achievement comes. My argument is that by keeping the same length of the school day kids still get their piano lessons, and all those other activities that we consider important. To me the cost doesn’t sound very high. It seems like a very good trade off.

    But I have only the assumption of linearity on which to base this 25% increase in achievement. Maybe the relation between hours input and learning output is not linear. Maybe it levels off. Maybe we get diminishing returns.

    If we think we get diminishing returns by going to eleven months, then shouldn’t we ask if we are already into diminishing returns with a nine month school year? Maybe an eight month school is optimal, or maybe six months, or maybe a distributed school year, two months of school followed by a vacation.

    Or maybe it works the other way. It seems to be conventional wisdom that kids lose ground during the summer. Maybe that loss would be greatly diminished with an eleven month school year. Maybe that 25% gain that I talked about would actually be a 30% or 35% gain. That’s something to think about.

    My intuition tells me that the gain would be greater than 25%, that summer loss is real and would be substantially mitigated by a longer school year.

    As a side note I have argued in other contexts that cultural norms and expectations can be very strong, which of course can be either good or bad in different situations. As an example of the strength of cultural expectations try convincing anyone to lengthen the school year. That’s a tough sell. The way it looks to me is that it’s simply not going to happen.

    Comment by Brian Rude — March 22, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

  5. Evenings and weekends are when I work with my kid on the stuff he’s not learning at school. Yesterday we worked on handwriting, for instance.

    Comment by mnm — March 22, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

  6. If longer school days translate into achievement, then how do you explain the fact that children who are educated at home by their own parents and often don’t have a formal curriculum do better than kids from public and private schools? How do you explain that children educated at home in Asia(though the movement is still relatively new there) do better than kids who go to school, this despite the fact of the longer school days and schedule? Its the enviroment rather than tweaks to the one we have that make the difference. A study by Raymond and Dorothy Moore(who published “Batter Late Than Early” and “School Can Wait”) in the 1970′s found that homeschooled children are likely to develop genius by being able to meet the three goals that are necessary to attain it:
    1). Lots of time spent around caring parents who should be educating them at home as well as other adults in the community.

    2). Very little time spent around peers. While socializing can be beneficial in some respects, most of the time it is damaging to children’s academic achievement. An interesting finding that the Moores point out is that homeschooled students OUTSCORE children from institutional schools on tests of self-concept and self-confidence. More than ninety percent of homeschooled students score anywhere in the 75th-94th percentiles on the Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale whereas more than half of institutionally schooled students score at or below the 40th percentile on the test.

    3.) No attention paid to competitive sports and other amusements. Competition, as the Moores and others have pointed out, is distracting and hinders children’s academic progress. Institutional schooling is all about promoting competition. I have read and seen E.D Hirsch write and promote competition among children, most notably in his magnum opus “The Schools Our Children Deserve”. It seems to me than chldren competing for attention and approval from the teacher as well as amongst themselves in contests would be damaging to children’s social development as it would promote hostility and resentment rather than cooperation.

    One last thing: If longer school days lead to improved performance on standardized tests, then how is it that China’s as well as every other Asian economy is so lousy?

    Comment by Homeschooolingfreak — March 22, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

  7. It seems to be conventional wisdom that kids lose ground during the summer.

    That was the point Nisbett discussed in his book. Whether a child lost or gained ground over the summer all depended on his/her SES. Disadvantaged kids lost ground while affluent kids actually gained nearly as much over the summer as they did the other 10 months of the year. I wish I had the Nisbett book on hand for the exact statistic and its source, but unfortunately it was a library copy I read. The Google Books preview doesn’t include the relevant chapter.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — March 22, 2010 @ 3:49 pm

  8. Mr.Finn’s comment seems analogous to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Who cares if children spend 192.3 hours vs 191.7 hours in the classroom if what they are learning is poor either way? The quality of the Asian math classrooms is in their curriculum (85%+) not in the time that their children spend in school. Why isn’t Mr. Finn complaining about/espousing new initiatives to improve curriculum? Instead he gives us, once again, a new canard to distract us with (seat time), a metric that has failed us time and time again.

    Curricula matters the most. Why doesn’t Mr. Finn state that fact?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — March 23, 2010 @ 2:26 am

  9. As some others have stated, I spend weekends, car rides (audio books)and vacation days teaching my kids all that they are not taught in school:

    world history
    poetry memorization
    math facts
    American History
    classical literature
    love of learning

    We are homeschooling for 6th grade so that my daughter can focus on learning rather than on the sick social scene at the middle school.

    I love virtual schools. We are moving from MD to VA in part because they have and are expanding virtual learning. This way my children can be enrolled in the public school, but be removed from the negative aspects of putting hundreds of teenagers in a building together all day, if necessary. It gives options to those of us who cannot afford the minimum $10,000 a year tuition of most private schools in this area.

    My son’s interest in 2nd grade has improved thanks to an intelligent teacher. Recently she told me that she is sick of teaching “nothing” to the kids. So, to keep with the county’s standards she switched the books from readers to high interest topics. They are all reading books on Roman history (not at all in the standards) and they are doing a play about the death of Caesar. Finally he can tell me that he learned something at school.

    Comment by Gina — March 23, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

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