President Obama recently called for school districts to lengthen the school day and extend the school year. It’s a great idea, especially in Minnesota where schools are given great latitude in determining the number of days in a school year.
While 30 states require 180 days of school, a handful require between 171 to 179 days, two mandate more than 181 school days, and six adjust their days into a required amount of instructional hours that equal about 180 days per year. Meanwhile, Minnesota is the only state that has no required minimum number of school days per year.
Minnesota’s districts set their own number, as long as students can meet state and local education requirements. Although each district has a different calendar, experts put Minnesota’s average at 175 school days per school year.
The President’s call comes at a time when the United States needs to muster all its resources to keep pace with growing economic competition from China, India, the European Union and countries in the Far East such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore. To compete in the 21st century, we need high-quality researchers and innovators – the kind that come from high-quality education institutions.
Minnesota’s K-12 schools have long been considered some of the best in the nation, but it showing unmistakable signs of deterioration after decades of underfunding. Class sizes are skyrocketing, schools are closing, programs are being cut and the teaching corps is shrinking through layoffs.
That’s where Minnesota’s state policymakers have traditionally been tripped up when considering a set number of days in the school year: The cost. The issue has come up during the Legislative session almost every year for decades. When the issue was last discussed in 2007, the price-tag of 25 extra days of school was pegged at roughly $750 million. That number doesn’t include the amount some business leaders say will be lost in tourism if the school year were lengthened. Minnesota lawmakers have clearly been unwilling to look beyond the sticker shock of longer school years.
And there are those who question the positive effects of lengthening the school year. A recent study by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research institute in Midland, Mich., found that in 2008, “the 20 Michigan school districts with the lowest average standardized test scores averaged about 30 hours more instructional time than the 20 districts with the highest standardized scores.”
But most agree that students forget their lessons between the last day of school in June and the first in August or September. Some studies suggest they actually fall back. Karl Alexander, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, home of the National Center for Summer Learning, told the Associated Press recently that summer is a crucial time for kids, especially poorer kids, because poverty is linked to problems that interfere with learning. That makes poor children almost totally dependent on their learning experience at school, he said.
“If your parents are high school dropouts with low literacy levels and reading for pleasure is not hard-wired, it’s hard to be a good role model for your children, even if you really want to be,” Alexander said.
It is simply common sense that the more time a student has in an adequately equipped classroom with a qualified, licensed teacher and an optimal number of peers, the more that student will learn and retain. And the greater number of students who have this opportunity will lead to fewer students failing to reach their full potential. And we must remember that it isn’t good enough to compare Minnesotans to students in other states, but we must also compare them to students in other countries with whom we will be competing for the same jobs.
President Obama has reignited an old discussion. Minnesota should revisit the idea and make strides toward making a longer school year – in concert with other school reforms – a reality.