FALL RIVER, Mass. — States and school districts nationwide are moving to lengthen the day at struggling schools, spurred by grim test results suggesting that more than 10,000 schools are likely to be declared failing under federal law next year.
In Massachusetts, in the forefront of the movement, Gov. Deval L. Patrick is allocating $6.5 million this year for longer days and can barely keep pace with demand: 84 schools have expressed interest.
Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York has proposed an extended day as one of five options for his state’s troubled schools, part of a $7 billion increase in spending on education over the next four years — apart from the 37 minutes of extra tutoring that children in some city schools already receive four times a week.
And Gov. M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut is proposing to lengthen the day at persistently failing schools as part of a push to raise state spending on education by $1 billion.
And of all the steps school districts take to try to improve student achievement, lengthening the day is generally the costliest — an extra $1,300 a student annually here in Massachusetts — and difficult to sustain.Schools would do better to focus on wasted time during the existing school day rather than lengthening the school day. Schools should work more intensely, instead of longer. Schools should ask themselves: Do we really need all these endless blocks for sustained, silent reading of vapid fiction? Shouldn't we perhaps also be reading some science stories, biographies, history? What about this time-consuming bean-counting project? Do kids really need to be spending a week to count a million mung beans? Another papier-mâché dinosaur?
I propose a different model.
For a fraction of the additional funds the states are willing to dish out, the districts could try a much more effective model: Offering intensive academic support (IAS) to small groups (not more than ten) during regular school hours in failing schools. This support can be offered for math and science, for example, two areas in which the disadvantaged fail spectacularly. It would require hiring a few new teachers with expertise in the respective subject areas per struggling school. These intensive academic support sessions could be held during the prep times of regular classroom teachers.
Such an approach would do wonders to the math and science education of the disadvantaged. Because of large classrooms and frequent disruptions, regular classroom teachers cannot offer the individualized and sustained attention the disadvantaged need to succeed in math and science. Many are so far behind and have such poor work and study habits that only intensive and sustained academic involvement will bring them up to speed.
It can be done.