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More school gains support, but does it add up for kids?

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Teacher Kristin Bretch snaps instructions to her young charges, reading words from her teacher's guide, pacing in front of the white board like a drill sergeant.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Teacher Kristin Bretch snaps instructions to her young charges, reading words from her teacher's guide, pacing in front of the white board like a drill sergeant.

"We're on word three: belt. Spell belt, everyone."

The pupils are second- and third-graders, almost all poor and many of whom could barely speak English when they arrived in Kansas City as refugees from countries such as Burundi and Sudan, Vietnam and Somalia. They reply, almost shouting, in unison.

B-E-L-T. Belt.

Here, at the Della Lamb Charter Elementary School, these lessons go on for 227 days, compared with the average 180 days of most U.S. school districts.


The reason is clear:

"To make us smarter. To give us better brains," said Abdirihman Akil, age 9.

Exactly, said President Barack Obama. He and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, have reiterated support for the idea of adding hours to the school day to boost academic achievement and compete with other nations.

Shortening summer vacation or adding weekend or night classes to accommodate working students are all possible options.

"Now, I know longer school days and school year are not wildly popular ideas. Not with Malia and Sasha, not in my family, and probably not in yours," the president said, referring to his daughters. "But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom."

Nationwide, the idea is gaining support.

In July, a month before his death, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and five other senators introduced the TIME Act -- an acronym for Time for Innovation Matters in Education -- to offer six-year grants to high-poverty schools (those where at least 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) to add 300 hours to teach basic core curriculum. An identical bill is in the House.

The bills are inspired by the results of a program that began five years ago in Massachusetts, whereby 300 hours -- the equivalent of about two and a half months of extra instruction -- were added to the schedules in 10 schools. It is now in 22, affects 12,000 students and will expand to every middle school in Boston.


"Typically, schools were given the option of longer days, longer years. Most have added time to the school day," said Jennifer Davis, a former U.S. Department of Education official who devised the initiative through the nonprofit Massachusetts 2020. "We are finding significant increases across the board in proficiency rates in science, English and math."

It's promising enough that Massachusetts 2020 has contracted with four other states with urban high-risk schools: two in Alabama, three in Hawaii, five in Rhode Island and upward of 20 in Colorado. "Oklahoma will likely be signing on, as well," Davis said.

But generations of Americans are wedded to the nine-month school year. No one minimizes the potential blowback in breaking tradition that affects school budgets, teacher pay and summer plans.

"It's not a topic that has met with great excitement, let me put it that way," said Kansas State Commissioner of Education Alexa Posny.

But Posny and her Missouri counterpart, Chris Nicastro, do not dispute the benefits.

"I really do think that our kids need to be in school longer," Nicastro said.

But the example of other nations -- particularly where students routinely outperform U.S. kids on tests -- is often cited. German and Japanese students go about 240 days. In many nations, the average is 195, three weeks more than here.

U.S. students spend 32 hours a week in school. In Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden, it's 37, 44, 53 and 60.


In Japan, when formal school, tutoring and other academic pursuits are factored, said Stephen Heyneman, professor at Vanderbilt's Peabody College of Education, "a kid at about age 16 is going to school at 8 a.m. and not getting home until 9 p.m."

But he noted that the more time doesn't always equal better scores.

"The question is always the same: If we extend the school year or hours of school, will academic achievement improve? And the answer," Heyneman said, "is likely yes, but it depends."

Some nations, for example require more hours in school than the U.S., but their scores are lower, said Elena Silva at Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank. Others spend less time but have higher scores.

"It's not just about time, it's about how that time is used," she said.

To be sure, adding more hours is only likely to make a bad situation worse in schools that struggle with safety and discipline or have poor teachers, resources or leadership.

Too many hours in U.S. schools are frittered away by busywork, such as settling in from class-to-class, or distractions such as broadcasted school announcements, Heyneman said.

Students have a textbook reaction to the notion of a longer school schedule.


"I don't think anyone would like that," said Hannah Hollis, an eighth-grader and A-B student at California Trail Junior High School in Olathe, Kan.

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