The debate over extending the school day and school year is getting renewed attention as schools scramble to determine how to make up missed days because of this year's miserable winter weather.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talked about it in his State of the State address in January. So did Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has made it clear he's in favor, too.
People who support increasing the time students spend in the classroom argue that it gives children longer learning blocks to become immersed in their studies and remain competitive internationally.
Opponents, including Tina Bruno, executive director of The Coalition for a Traditional School Calendar, say schools should focus on quality over quantity.
"If we are really concerned and feel kids need more academic time, we can better use the time we have," said Bruno. "What we really need to focus on is providing students with the learning programs they need before we just say 'Give them more, it'll make it better.' "
Duncan has said today's competitive workplace makes additional hours valuable.
"Whether educators have more time to enrich instruction or students have more time to learn how to play an instrument and write computer code, adding meaningful in-school hours is a critical investment that better prepares children to be successful in the 21st century," Duncan said in 2012. Spokeswoman Elaine Quesinberry confirmed this week that Duncan maintains that view.
Each state has its own school-time requirements, but 180 days is average, according to the Education Commission of the States. While state law establishes the minimum threshold, individual districts and schools have flexibility to add more time, according to the National Center on Time and Learning.
The center reported that there were 1,002 expanded-time schools in 36 states and the District of Columbia serving more than 520,000 students in 2012. Expanded-time schools are defined by the National Center on Time and Learning as "public schools that expand learning time for all enrolled students; operate with a school day of at least seven hours; and have a substantially longer day or year when compared with surrounding public schools."
Expanded-time schools spend an average of 224 additional hours and four more days in the classroom than the national average, the center reported. In 2009, the center reported that 20% of traditional school districts were expanded-time schools. In 2011, that percentage increased to 40%.
The effectiveness of increased time in school has varied.
• In North Carolina, the Avery County school district on Feb. 3 added 30 minutes to each day Monday through Thursday, which, in addition to more learning time, minimized the hassle of making up the 16 days they missed for snow this year, superintendent David Burleson said. School officials say they are thinking about making the extra time permanent.
"We have had a lot of positive response because of the added 30 minutes, especially from teachers who feel they get more instructional time for remediation and enrichment activities," Burleson said.
• In Massachusetts, the Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School saw their students' English scores jump 10%, and math scores go up 16%, after adding an hour to the elementary school day and 3½ hours to the middle school schedule. "Students know it's worth their time to be here and their time will be used well because it involves all the different aspects," said Meghan Welch, the director of operations at Orchard Gardens.
• In New Jersey, despite doubling students' time on math and language arts in 2011, Peshine Avenue Elementary seventh-graders scored 51% lower than their peers in language arts proficiency on the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge.
The extended day can be hard on teachers.
"The longer school day affects teachers by having them be responsible for having students in front of them for that much longer, which cuts into the time they would be planning lessons or carefully assessing student work," said Carol Caref, research director with the Chicago Teachers Union.
Some lawmakers want school time extension to go beyond just tacking a few days and hours onto the school year.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., announced legislation Jan. 23 endorsing pilot programs for year-round schools. In Virginia, Democrats Sen. Henry Marsh and Del. Rosalyn Dance proposed budget amendments Jan. 30 that would increase funding for year-round school grants to $3 million a year.
Arranged to include frequent, shorter breaks, year-round calendars could help reduce "summer slide" — the loss of knowledge in the summer that disproportionately affects low-income students, according to a 2011 report by the RAND Corp.
Opponents say that the high cost of year-round school, combined with inconsistent research about its effectiveness, should keep these types of bills from moving forward.
Bruno said there are many benefits to keeping summer break uninterrupted. During the summertime, Bruno and her 11-year-old daughter will virtually explore foreign countries and find authentic recipes to try out — but they'll always triple or quadruple the recipe to give Bruno's daughter a chance to work her fractions.
"We combine learning with real-world applications and create memories," Bruno said. "That's what summer really gives us time to do."