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Students benefit from longer school days

By Mike Feinberg, Special to CNN
  • Mike Feinberg: Schools that cut out a day to save money are making a crucial mistake
  • Author co-founded KIPP schools; they have longer days and are outperforming others
  • Feinberg says more time means more learning for children, programs don't have to be cut
  • Americans will be competing with Chinese, where kids get much more schooling

Editor's note: Mike Feinberg is co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program, KIPP, and is the superintendent of KIPP Houston. KIPP is a network of 82 high-performing public charter schools serving 21,000 children in 19 states. In 2004, Mike was named an Ashoka Fellow, awarded to leading social entrepreneurs, and in 2008, he received the Presidential Citizens Medal.

Houston, Texas (CNN) -- School districts nationwide are trimming funds, for custodians to school supplies, to address widening budget gaps. Even public schools in affluent communities such as Mill Valley, California, and Scarsdale, New York, are scrambling to make ends meet.

In a final act of desperation, more than 100 school districts in 17 states have done the unthinkable --they've eliminated an entire school day each week. This decision is particularly wrongheaded as results from the Massachusetts Extended Learning Time Initiative last year showed that schools with expanded schedules improved at double the state rate in English and math.

In January 2009, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "I think the school day is too short, our week is too short, our year is too short." And he was referring to a five-day week, 180-day school year, let alone the truncated version that many cash-strapped districts will provide this year.

Take away time, take away learning. As the co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program, a national network of extended-day public charter schools, I know there is no substitute for the hours a student spends with an effective and inspiring teacher.

Dave Levin and I started KIPP in 1994 in Houston, Texas, after we completed two years of teaching with Teach for America. Almost all of our students were Hispanic or African-American children from low-income households. Less than half entered KIPP at their grade level in math and reading.

Dave and I knew that our kids could overcome these challenges, but we were hemmed in by the traditional school calendar.

We decided to eliminate the lack of time as an excuse for failure by starting the KIPP day at 7:30 a.m. and ending it at 5 p.m., with Saturday school twice a month and at least three weeks of mandatory summer school.

By 1999, KIPP Academy became the highest performing open-enrollment public middle school in Houston. Sixteen years later, there are now 82 KIPP public charter schools in 19 states serving 21,000 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade across the country. Nationally, about 80 percent of KIPP students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and more than 85 percent of the students who graduated from our first five KIPP schools have gone on to college.

What does the extra time allow KIPP to do?

KIPP schools are in more than 30 urban and rural communities across the country. They don't have to choose between teaching math or music; they can do both. In New Orleans, Louisiana, KIPP middle school students play in a jazz band. In the Mississippi Delta, KIPP students are taking Spanish in kindergarten.

Many of our KIPP middle schools also offer Saturday school twice a month, but don't picture a scene from the 1980s movie "The Breakfast Club." Students actually look forward to their weekend KIPP days, when they get extra academic help and participate in activities such as cooking, knitting, soccer or African drumming.

KIPP is not alone -- 655 schools in 35 states have added more time for learning, according to the National Center on Time and Learning. These schools, like KIPP, are finding ways to extend the school day even in a time of scarce resources, because they see the impact it has on student learning.

How does KIPP afford the extra time? The simple answer is that it's not easy.

It costs an additional $1,100 to $1,500 per student to fund KIPP's longer school day and calendar, which is about the same as the average price tag for other experimental extended day programs. Excellence is not cheap.

KIPP schools also have to address staffing and sustainability. Teacher turnover remains a challenge for many KIPP schools, but it is going down as we work to improve the work environment.

A KIPP elementary school in Los Angeles had more than 90 percent teacher retention over the past two years by setting aside ample teacher planning time during the day. Here in Houston, we have on-site day care for our teachers with young children of their own.

Cutting time will save money now but have consequences later. As school systems in other countries recognize, you can't cut the school year and expect kids to achieve high standards.

In China, for example, schools provide more than 300 more hours of instructional time than the average American school, and an academic year that is 41 days longer. This means that American children may eventually compete with Chinese kids who have had thousands of more hours of learning time.

At KIPP, we believe that promises we make to children are sacred. By expanding the school day and year, America can fulfill the promise that public schools are the pathway to building a better tomorrow.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Feinberg.