A crazy idea worth considering: more school
The Legislature passed a bill that will fund schools for the next two years, and there’s a lot to like, primarily more money.
The legislative session’s education discourse has included a lot about free meals, reading pedagogy, social studies content, unemployment benefits for school hourly workers and what’s known around the Capitol as the “cross-subsidy,” which is the increasing share of school districts’ money going to pay for ballooning special education costs.
Which is all fine and good, but I have a crazy idea that I think deserves some attention, especially as the school year winds down: More school.
Minnesota children spend fewer hours and days in the classroom than their peers nationwide. Among states with mandated instructional time, only Colorado requires fewer days than Minnesota, according to the Education Commission of the States.
Most states require 180 days. In Minnesota, we only require 165 days. That’s three fewer weeks in the classroom.
Our mandated hours stack up better, but there’s still plenty of room to grow. A recent estimate by Matthew Kraft of Brown University and Sarah Novicoff of Stanford University found that the average U.S. student is in session for 6.87 hours per day and 178.7 days per school year for a total of 1,227 hours per year. In Minnesota, we require 935 hours for elementary school students, and 1,020 hours for older children.
This time in the classroom — or lack thereof — matters, according to a 2022 paper from Kraft and Novicoff:
“Research on the causal effect of time in school on academic achievement suggests that increasing learning time in schools could be beneficial for students if that time is used well. These increases could be especially beneficial in environments where students currently experience low levels of time.” (Emphasis mine.)
Kraft and Novicoff completed a case study in Providence, R.I., and found time’s a wasting: Elementary students lose 16% of instructional time, middle schoolers 21% and high school students a full quarter of instructional time due to student and teacher absences and outside disruptions.
Now consider what Minnesota elementary school students are losing to “e-learning” days. My kindergartener had school canceled once plus four “e-learning” days this year due to weather. I don’t dismiss the value of real life experiences, and that’s a good thing because the only real instruction he received during those e-learning days was in how to make snowballs, shovel snow (badly) and brew hot chocolate. But he and his classmates lost five crucial classroom days.
Part of the problem is that Minnesota has tied the hands of our school districts by forbidding them — with some exceptions — from starting school before Labor Day.
And why do we forbid them from getting a head start?
It’s an open secret around the state Capitol that the resort industry and the State Fair — both of which have outsized influence with legislators — have put the kibosh on school days interrupting these all-important summer rituals.
Summer rituals for whom?
Notice that the students most in need of more school days often come from families who can afford neither overpriced State Fair tickets, nor a weekend at a resort.
I asked former DFL state Rep. Jim Davnie, who chaired the education committee, about all this, and I appreciated his blunt response.
The problem, he said, is political, and the realities of constituency influence. “Nice white parents” are a powerful constituency in Minnesota education, he said. (That’s a reference to an insightful podcast called “Nice White Parents” about the power dynamics of education.)
These parents, he said, “Yell about adding days or starting earlier because they want their kids out of school with structured time in the summer or traveling with family or summer camps. They want them building their resumes, having experiences.”
It’s all so grim: Wealthier parents want their kids in enrichment camps to pad their resumes so they can go to an overpriced private college, where they’ll make connections so they can earn lots of money, so they can send their own children to these same camps and colleges. Whereas kids who could really use a couple extra weeks of school are outta luck.
There’s another way in which the short school year shortchanges working class people. School days are an important form of child care, which in Minnesota is scarce and wildly expensive. But that’s less of a concern for wealthier parents, who can stay home with the children, work from home or get help from family.
The parents and children who could use extra school days are relatively powerless, both at the Capitol and on school boards.
The problem for the state’s future is that the kids who would benefit the most from more school are an increasing portion of the student body. (On the latest round of standardized tests, 31% of Black and Latino students were judged proficient in reading, and the situation is more dire in math.)
“If you do a race and class analysis on this, you come back to asking who the constituency group is who would argue for this,” Davnie said of more school.
Sadly, he’s right.
People without power and money don’t typically have the time nor the expertise to lobby their lawmakers, especially when it comes to asking for something that’s likely going to cost money — as a longer school year surely will — and face opposition from powerful actors.
But as I learned in school, democracy is a self-correcting system — change is possible if we make it so.
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