Longer school year deserves closer look

Todd Dorman
Published: December 27 2011 | 12:01 am - Updated: 3 April 2014 | 9:26 am in

The Gazette Editorial Board

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One item that wasn’t in Gov. Terry Branstad’s blueprint for education reform at its unveiling this fall was the amount of time Iowa’s K-12 students spend in school.

But after the issue kept popping up during town halls and public forums, the governor has formed an Iowa Department of Education task force to study whether the state should lengthen school days or school years, or even require struggling students to go to school on Saturdays and in the summer.

It’s an idea that has broad support among Iowa educators and parents, if informal polls at educational events are any indication.

The main argument against doing so would cost money — as much as an extra $10 million to $15 million statewide for each extra day.

But if it helps raise the educational bar for our students, it will be money well spent.

The task force will study what approach would be best — adding school days in June or August, shortening breaks during the school year or just making school days longer.

Their recommendations could be put into place as early as the 2013-13 school year.

Schools in the United States, and Iowa in particular, are charged with teaching a broad curriculum in a short amount of time, relative to the rest of the world.

Iowa has a 180-day school year with school days lasting no fewer than 5.5 hours, even though most Iowa students are in class an average of 6.5 hours.

But our students spend far fewer days in class than many of their peers in top-performing schools around the globe.

Canadian students spend 194 days in school; South Korean and German students spend 220 days; Japanese students spend a whopping 240 days in the classroom each year — and all outperform U.S. students in tests of math, science or reading.

And while we can’t give all the credit to the longer school year, we can’t ignore the impact that additional instruction time has on student performance.

Our school year is outdated; it hasn’t changed for generations, although nearly everything else — curriculum, expectations, the world for which our students are being prepared — most certainly has.

And contrary to some critics’ concerns, expanding the school year is not incompatible with other reform efforts, like competency-based education — requiring students to show mastery of a subject in order to pass, not fulfill a set amount of time in a classroom chair.

It could mesh nicely with proposed increases in availability of online coursework.

After all, the point of expanding the school year wouldn’t be to fill classrooms and hallways, but to dramatically increase opportunities for student learning.

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