As an advocate of incorporating science in after-school, I might be expected to support the concept of longer school days that allow for more subjects to be taught. S. Paul Reville's article in Ed Week calls for this, and Massachusetts has taken the lead in piloting extended days. Now this topic is gaining ground as part of the revision of No Child Left Behind. I agree that there must be more time for "learning," but there are a few reasons that we must be careful about just adding more time for school.
Enrichment vs Academics: Spending time learning hard facts is important. Students need to be proficient in math, reading, and writing, and there are core facts in science, social studies, and other subjects that need to be absorbed as well. But how many hours per day should a 10-year-old spend on this? What about exploring topics that don't have hard answers, like what exists on other planets, or what the heck is this stuff?
Teacher Time: More time on academics presumably means more time committed by teachers. Is it really fair to expect teachers to add hours to their teaching day and time to prepare more lessons? And this doesn't even account for the higher demand of keeping kids engaged longer, when they are tired and just want to play. Enrichment time can be led by para-professionals, part-time staff, or volunteers, because it involves the child exploring, without the pressure of academic content or timetables.
Much of the pressure for longer school days comes from the success of charter schools with extended days. However, I can speak from personal experience - when I worked in such a program, we converted the extra hours into enrichment time, with art, drama, Odyssey of the Mind, etc. This was a better use of the time than extra instruction ever could have been (for teachers and students).
I support Mr. Reville's call for more learning time, but let's make sure that the law does not restrict the funding to academics. Programs like 21st Century Community Learning Centers are successful because they trust community-based organizations to support the schools in providing enrichment. Let's keep that success moving in the right direction!
Link to EdWeek article (may require registration)