In most U.S. schools, the school day and year are the same length today as 100 years ago — 6 ½ hours, 180 days. Expectations for what schools must crowd into that time have risen sharply, though. Concerns that American workers need better preparation to keep up with global competition have increased school hours spent on math and English language arts, especially since the advent of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2002.
Between 2002 and 2007, weekly time allotted to math and English in U.S. schools grew by an average of 230 minutes, according to a 2008 study by the Center on Education Policy.
The sharpened focus on a narrow list of pursuits limits school time for social studies, geography, art, music, physical education, recess and field trips. It shrinks time for projects that let kids get their hands dirty, and learn from mistakes. It lessens chances to practice new skills until they are mastered. And it squeezes out time for exercising creativity, and learning social graces that foster fulfilling lives and careers.
It's a tough trade-off that has education reformers looking hard at the traditional school schedule, experimenting with ways to expand available learning time to better match learning needs, especially for low-income students whose families can't provide the enrichment activities middle-class kids benefit from during after-school hours.