- The Washington Times - Monday, December 3, 2012

With American children continuing to lag behind their international peers, governors from both parties on Monday joined the Obama administration in embracing more classroom time for students.

Five states joined the growing movement to lengthen the school day, and will implement the new schedules next fall. Tennessee, New York, Connecticut, Colorado and Massachusetts have chosen a handful of districts to participate in a pilot program with an additional 300 hours of learning time in their academic years.

Nearly 20,000 students in 40 schools — many in impoverished areas where test scores tend to be lower — will participate in the initiative funded by the Ford Foundation, the National Center on Time and Learning and a number of other nonprofit and community groups. Each participating state, as well as the U.S. Department of Education, will also contribute.

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been among the most fervent supporters of increased learning time, arguing it’s a key step in boosting the college and career readiness of American students.

Mr. Duncan said Monday that he expects the movement to continue sweeping the nation’s schools and called the effort an overdue step in the larger education reform agenda.

“This is an extraordinary idea whose time has come,” Mr. Duncan said at a press conference, where he was joined by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy and officials from New York, Massachusetts and Tennessee.

“We’ve been trying to push this as a national movement,” Mr. Duncan continued. “This is the kernel of a national movement … this is a triumph of common sense. But as a country, we have not taken this step for a long time.”

Monday’s announcement comes just three months after Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also implemented a longer school day as part of his city’s larger deal to end the controversial teachers strike.

More than 1,000 schools across the country already have added hundreds of hours of learning time to their school days, and some also now exceed the traditional 180-day school year. D.C. has 47 schools with extended learning time, while Maryland has 10 and Virginia operates just one.

Education leaders see increased time in school as a key way to not only boost test scores, but also to keep inner-city and at-risk youths in a safe environment and off increasingly dangerous streets. That rationale was central to Mr. Emanuel’s argument in Chicago, where violent crime rates remain among the highest in the nation.

“There are too many kids in communities around the country … in which those adult-free hours [after school but before parents return from work] are filled with crime, teenage pregnancy and drug abuse,” said Luis Ubinas, president of the nonprofit Ford Foundation, which promotes social justice through work in education and other areas.

But while the idea of more classroom time has drawn praise from many educators, lawmakers and officials at the state and federal levels, the movement is not without its detractors. A 2011 report from the National School Boards Association made the case that American students already spend much more time in school than many of their international counterparts — some of whom score much better on global assessment tests.

The study showed that South Korean elementary school students, for example, spend 703 hours in the classroom each year, far less than the required time in the U.S.

South Korean children boast some of the highest scores on the Program for International Student Assessment, one of the most-often cited benchmarks when comparing student achievement by country.

There is no federal standard for the number of hours in a school year, but all states exceed the South Korean threshold. Florida, for example, requires 900 classroom hours for its elementary students, while California calls for 840. Texas leads the nation by mandating 1,260 hours for its elementary-age children.

Supporters of extended learning time concede the extra hours alone won’t fix the shortcomings of the nation’s struggling public school systems, but do see the movement as a significant step in the right direction.

Mr. Malloy, the Connecticut governor who has drawn praise for increasing education funding in his state by about $100 million, said he views more classroom time as one way to level the playing field between students in affluent districts and those in lower-income areas.

“The idea that we can tolerate different levels of achievement based on geography, or race, or wealth, or home ownership, simply does not make any sense,” he said at Monday’s press conference.

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