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Brazil: Extending school days may hurt students

Rita Almeida's picture
Photo: Stephan Bachenheimer/ World Bank

María is a single mother with two young children who spend about five hours a day in school. Since she has a full time job, it’s a challenge for her to care for them and not lose her only source of income. This may be a hypothetical situation but it’s replicated, every day, in many countries in Latin America that have a reduced school day. 
In Latin America, several countries – Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, and Brazil – have introduced programs to lengthen the school day. The goal: to improve student learning, reduce student dropouts, and to ultimately shrink income inequality.

As a working mom, I am concerned with limiting women’s opportunities in the labor market. But, as an economist, I also want an answer to a basic question: does a longer school day help students succeed and does it reduce the student dropout rate? From a career standpoint, a longer or a full school day allows women to devote time to work while children are in class learning.

It’s important to know whether extending the school day in systems that have traditionally been performing poorly actually delivers these results. Such programs have stirred controversy because it costs more to keep students in school longer. Many studies have analyzed the impact of full-time schooling on cognitive results with mixed results.  While most papers found a positive impact on student scores, others found no impact.

Mais Educação

Together with Brasil’s largest independent think tank for the design and evaluation of rigorous public education policies, Fundacao Itau Social, I have tried to answer my question and have examined the academic impact of a longer school day in Brazil. We evaluated the short- and medium-term impact of a federal program, Mais Educação, on student scores and school dropout rates. Mais Educação – “More Education” – extends the school day by financing extra activities before or after regular class hours.  They include sports, culture, and the arts, and a mandatory activity of extracurricular academic support to help  students in the fields of Portuguese, history, math, or science.

The program was launched in 2008 and it gradually expanded nationwide, covering more than 65 percent of municipalities by 2013. It targets public schools and covers primary and secondary schools. Mais Educação promotes extending the school day to at least seven hours from 4.5 hours in 2007.  It focuses on fifth and ninth grades, which have higher dropout rates.

The team leading the analysis, in partnership with Itau Social, explored Mais Educação’s nationwide rollout. In particular, we compared the average educational outcomes of students in participating and nonparticipating schools between 2007 – before Mais Educação began – and 2011, when it already covered 6.2 percent of Brazil’s public schools but it was still far from the more than 30% of schools it covers today.

Our findings  (available in Portuguese and in English) showed that in the medium term, on average, Mais Educação had no impact on dropout rates. We also didn’t find evidence the program was more effective earlier in the cycle.  The program showed a statistically significant and negative impact on math test scores. We found no average impact on Portuguese test scores. This held true for both fifth and ninth grades.

We also found the negative impact on math achievement was stronger in the short term and among schools that joined the program in 2008 – versus schools that joined later, in 2010. In addition, the negative fallout was concentrated in schools where students performed initially worse in math. Finally, the program appeared to produce better educational results for schools in wealthier cities.

An accompanying qualitative study leads us to believe that negative short-term results were tied to challenges when the program was first rolled out nationally. This likely affected the habits of students, teachers, and schools – and possibly meant less study at home.

Our findings suggest that results may improve in the years ahead as the program implementation improves. Based on this qualitative work, the following would contribute to improve Mais Educação:

  • Rely on full-time higher quality teachers dedicated to a single school;
  • Help schools integrate extra curricular academic support activities into their existing curricula;
  • Provide adequate facilities and infrastructure for extracurricular activities; and
  • Offer detailed program guidelines for the training of directors, program monitoring, and an evaluation system.
Despite the initial discouraging results, there is substantive evidence that the program can build on all these findings and be significantly improved. One thing is critical: let’s test and pilot alternative ways of making implementation better and only then take them to scale.

I believe that we should also look beyond academic achievement and examine the impact of full-day schooling on non-educational factors, such as female labor force participation and student’s socio-emotional skills, teen pregnancy, and juvenile crime.
 
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