In the past few weeks, the idea of extending school days and the school year has been proffered by both the President and the Secretary of Education. The reasoning goes like this. The US does not do very well on international math and science tests. A lot of countries do better and many of their kids go to school longer or for more hours a day. Therefore, if we extend the hours in school, math and science proficiency will increase. I just have one question. Will throwing more time at the problem result in higher test scores?
Here's the problem as I see it.
First, every so many years, a new "New Math" program comes out. Most, like the latest get-rich-quick or diet fads, promise to teach kids greater understanding of math without any of the difficulties we commonly associate with math. No times tables. No long division. Instead, we have: What color is the number 10? Kids like it because it's easy and fun. Some teachers like it. And parents like it until they realize their kid doesn't know basic arithmetic.
And science? Science is dependent on math skills to quantify its ideas and implementations. To be good in science, you have to have fluency with math. It's that simple.
In ASD, we spent several years, and the mathematical foundation of thousands of students, on Investigations Math. This, and other related programs, are ubiquitous in this country. (My sister, a teacher in New Jersey, had to deal with "Fuzzy Math".) If we had increased classroom time during "Investigations", would our kids have a firmer grasp of math? No. Would more time on a diet that doesn't work result in weight loss? More time spent does not equate to a better result.
Even teaching traditional math, more class time doesn't equal more proficiency. Like budgeting, dieting, sports, or most anything else, you learn a principle, and then you have to put that principle into practice. Michael Jordan didn't become a great basketball player by just studying dribbling and three-point-shooting. He had to spend a lot of time practicing. The same is true for math and science. Math is about seeing relationships between numbers. Science is finding relationships in nature by way of math. If you do not have the basic facts as an automatic part of your problem solving, you can't free up higher brain functions to find those higher-level relationships. We need to ensure we are teaching a good foundation of the basics and encouraging practice. And then, we will see improvement.
Next, I am reminded of a phrase that says, "Sometimes less is more". Sometimes putting more of something into a problem doesn't yield good enough results to justify the effort you put into it. I read the account of a woman who decided to cut back her work day by one or two hours each day. She was amazed to find that she accomplished the same amount of work in less time. We tend to fill the time we have. There is a point at which the time is properly managed and a point when it is wasted (or even counter-productive). Let's not turn math instruction into "too much of a good thing".
Finally, whether it is intentional or not, increased school hours result in fewer family hours. The days are already filled with school, homework, and various activities. How many days each week do you have where you are not running kids from one thing to the next? How many days are you actively involved with your family, as a family? The most important of all relationships are those within our own families. We need to be able to properly balance school, activities and home life. Parental involvement is what is needed, not more school time.
There are so many days I have wished for more hours in the day. But the answer isn't more hours. The answer is in optimizing the hours that we have.