OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - In 1907, when Oklahoma became a state, the length of its school year was determined largely by the demands of life on the farm where students were expected to perform their share of the chores.
But 101 years later, educators and political leaders say tougher academic standards require public school students to be in the classroom longer to increase instructional time and better equip them for the demands of the 21st century's global economy.
Gov. Brad Henry, Superintendent of Schools Sandy Garrett and the state Board of Education have thrown their support behind a plan to expand Oklahoma's 175-day requirement for instructional days in a school year to 180 days.
“What we're trying to do is to come to the national average, which is 180,” Garrett said. She said Oklahoma's 175 days of instruction is the lowest in the nation. Regionally, Arkansas and New Mexico require 178 days of instruction, Texas 180 and Kansas 186.
“We believe we are shortchanging children,” Garrett said. “Our children are prisoners of time because we allocate so little time to learning.
“We're in a global economy. Many, many, many countries have looked at a much longer school year than we have as our goal.”
But the $90 million cost of adding five more instructional days to the school calendar has forced state lawmakers to look for an alternative in what budget negotiators say will be a tight budget year.
The Republican-controlled Oklahoma House has approved a proposal that would add three days to Oklahoma's school year and give schools more flexibility to set the length of the school day.
“If we're trying to compete with China, then we have to deal with a large-scale expansion of time,” said the measure's author, Rep. Tad Jones, R-Claremore, chairman of the House Education Committee.
The bill, which is pending in the Senate Appropriations Committee, would convert three professional training days for teachers into instructional days for students, extending the number of instructional days to 178.
The Oklahoma Education Association and some school superintendents have criticized the plan because it reduces training time for teachers. State law currently allows up to five professional days each year for teachers.
The bill also converts the 180 instructional and professional days that state law requires in a school year to 1,080 hours each year. Jones said the change would give school districts more flexibility to extend the length of a school day and possibly go to a four-day school week.
“Schools can be more efficient with their time. They can actually save some money,” Jones said. “You're more flexible. I think that's the word that schools want to hear.”
But, Jones added, “we've got to make sure it's a quality education, not just a quantity.”
The plan would increase state educational costs by $13 million if school districts maintain their current schedules. But Jones said schools will actually save money if they extend the length of the school day and convert to a four-day week.
“The challenge this year is the cost,” Jones said.
It takes political will to dedicate more resources to public education and give students more time to learn, said Gregory McGinity, senior director of policy for The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, a Los Angeles-based think-tank that researches and supports improvements to urban public education.
“Time on task for any student or for anybody to gain additional skills is critically important,” McGinity said. Just as great football and basketball players spend a a lot of time practicing, public school students need more time to become proficient in a growing list of learning requirements.
“If you don't give them that time, they're not going to get there,” he said.
A January 2007 study by the foundation, entitled “On the Clock: Rethinking the Way Schools Use Time,” reported that international test results showed U.S. students lagged behind students in other counties that require longer school years.
U.S. students performed poorly on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Programme for International Student Assessment, which tests the mathematics proficiency of 15-year-olds in 40 nations.
The average score for U.S. students on the 2003 test was lower than the scores of students in 20 other countries including Japan and measurably higher than those of only five countries; Portugal, Italy, Greece, Mexico and Turkey.
A researcher who studied the data found that students in the U.S. receive 10 percent fewer instructional hours per year than students in other OECD nations. Japan offers more instructional time and consistently outscores the U.S. on international assessments.
“That clearly puts our kids at a disadvantage,” McGinity said. “You have an unbalanced playing field…We want to see American students to have the same opportunities in the global economy.”
But there are obstacles to extending the year.
Some states do not want to interfere with the summertime economy in which students are involved as part-time workers, McGinity said.