School “reformers” have, for decades, promoted the idea of extending the number of school days per year, from the current norm of 180 days to 190 or 200. Yet for all their talk, there has been extremely little evidence that two or four additional weeks of school would help children succeed in life.
The principal reason for this lack of evidence is that very few public schools have adopted a longer year. Miami-Dade County conducted an expensive three year experiment, but the program was deemed a failure. And whatever might be said about KIPP and other charter schools, there are too many factors in play to single out the number of school days as the cause for any effect.
In type and number of schools involved, Washington, D.C.’s current extended school year program is fairly unique. After a small trial run, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) launched a program in 2016-17 for eleven elementary and middle schools to employ a 200-day school year, from mid-August to mid-July. Two high schools were added for the 2017-18 school year.
Let us first understand who DCPS is experimenting upon.
The overall student population of DCPS is 62 percent Black, 20 percent Latino, and 14 percent White. But the children in the extended year schools are 83 percent Black, 15 percent Latino, and one-half of one percent White. And while there are a good number of middle and upper-middle class public schools in the city, all of the extended year schools are dominated by children in poverty.
Since this large-scale experiment has been running for only a year and a half, there’s not a lot of data available. However, DCPS conducts its official student census every October, so we are able to compare audited enrollment in these schools from before implementation of the extended year (SY 2015-16) through the current year (SY 2017-18).
Across the eleven schools operating an extended year since SY 2016-17, enrollment dropped by six percent. Putting aside the two mostly Latino schools where other factors are driving student population, in the nine schools that are 95-to-100 percent Black, enrollment dropped by more than ten percent. Among the three middle schools in the program, all of which are 96-to-99 percent Black, enrollment dropped by nearly 15 percent. In the two high schools added for SY 2017-18, enrollment dropped six and 19 percent. (To download the enrollment spreadsheet, CLICK HERE.)
Clearly, parents—especially African Americans—voted with their feet and fled the experiment. And the program is only in its second year!
Students also voted with their feet, with or without their parents’ permission. According to a report by local public radio (WAMU), students in extended year schools played hooky as soon as the regular school year ended. Specifically, when most schools ended on June 14 and extended year schools stayed in session until July 13, 2017, “the percentage of daily absences at extended year schools doubled – and in some cases, tripled.”
Why is the extended school year so unpopular?
First, nobody asked for this. Bringing a disruptive program into a neighborhood school is unlikely to work without community support. Like so many education “reform” inventions, this was imposed from above.
Second, the content offered in the 20 additional days is not tailored to meet community needs. Instead of giving these children enrichment programs that might mirror the wider learning experiences that more affluent children get during the summer, the schools offer more of the same drudgery. It’s like the expression “the beatings will continue until morale improves.” If children are not successfully learning in 1200 school hours, it’s irrational to think that doing the same thing for another 133 hours will help them.
Third, the shortened summer break interferes with other important experiences. Older students can’t qualify for summer jobs. Children can’t participate in summer camps and enrichment programs. And it keeps families from spending the time they want with aunts, uncles and cousins who—quite commonly for African Americans in D.C.—live hundreds of miles away.
The reality is that children in poverty face tremendous challenges outside of their studies, such as health problems, housing and food insecurity, safety in their neighborhoods and sometimes in their homes, the lack of outlets for recreation, the need to look after other family members, difficulty with English, difficulty with immigration status, and a lack of opportunities to experience things that more affluent children take for granted. Students in poverty can’t do their best inside the classroom if their basic needs aren’t met outside the classroom.
To give these children a fair chance at competing with students from higher income families, they need programs and services that provide what they’re missing. Part of that can be offered through afterschool and summer enrichment programs. But unless the programs are customized to the children’s needs and participation is voluntary, they are never going to work.
Real learning is a matter engagement, not time.
Bernie Horn is the Policy Director for the Public Leadership Institute