Toward more time in class

President Barack Obama supports it. So does New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. And to add to that list U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan -- and a host of other education experts.

The idea of expanding the school year has been kicked around for decades, in fact; we are no longer an agrarian society requiring children to be home during the summer to work the fields. What's more, many industrialized nations are surpassing the United States in academic scores and achievements, and the country has to get back its edge. Typically, U.S. students spend about 6.5 hours a day in school, 180 days a year.

But extending the school calendar has proven elusive, at best. And there are some real impediments in the way -- funding and changing the social calendars and lives of families among them.

One easier remedy, however, is not to increase the school year so much by the number of days but by hiking the number of hours students are getting instruction during the course of a day. This is critically important at a time when students have been required to take more high-stakes tests -- and educators have been forced to spend more time preparing students for those exams. Having longer school days, as some pilot programs have demonstrated around the country, can enable educators to focus on aspects of education that have been devalued, such as the arts, and to focus more intensely on core areas such as reading and math.

Of course, the cost of providing students with the proper education always deepens the debates about how to increase instruction. To that end, a panel of education experts recently presented Cuomo with a series of recommendations for reforming New York's public education system. They include a smattering of suggestions, such as expanding prekindergarten programs aimed at improving education. But they also include proposals such as consolidating schools, with the intent to save money.

These recommendations must be taken seriously and get swift attention. New York spends more money per student than any other state but test scores and graduation rates lag in many cases.

The governor's commission has some wonderful ideas, such as establishing "community schools" in low-income neighborhoods, where students could go for health care, nutrition, family counseling and other support services, in addition to schooling. But initiatives like that would cost plenty of money -- and require a change in attitudes about what a school should be.

In contrast, extending learning time for districts is an achievable goal that could be implemented and in fairly short order. What's more, Cuomo has suggested the state would pay 100 percent of the costs if districts elected to do that -- either by lengthening the school day or extending the school year, or a combination of both, to offer more instruction time.

School districts, of course, have reasons to be wary until the details are more clearly spelled out. Yet it's impossible to dispute the notion that increasing instruction time would benefit a new generation of students growing up in an increasingly complicated, competitive and technical world.

-- The Poughkeepsie Journal