After serving twenty-seven years as a school superintendent in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, I find that the issue of how much time schools should allocate for instruction and how to best distribute the time across subject areas and grade levels, remains very much alive and well. Debates continue on whether or not we have too short a school year or school day when compared to other countries.
Calls for a longer school year and longer school day persist, especially among politicians. Earlier this year, Gov. Chris Christie in his 2014 “State of the State” address, called for a longer school day and a longer school year. How to fund the additional time wasn’t addressed. However I believe that you don’t need a longer school day or a longer school year if districts effectively used the time allocated in most schools.
The issue is most pronounced in the secondary schools in which the program of studies must comply with state educational requirements, along with the local district’s discretion on elective program offerings. As a result, the student scheduling process at secondary schools is more complicated. For example, most secondary schools maintain the traditional fixed time slots of between forty to forty-five minutes, scheduled for each class to meet every day. However, there has been a movement toward what is referred to as “block scheduling” in which class periods range from one hour to an hour and a half, rotate throughout the week, and do not meet every day.
The research remains inconclusive on how the length of the school year and the school day affect overall student performance.
One of the most frequently cited measures of student performance is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the PISA includes 470,000 fifteen-year-olds representing 65 nations. They participate in examinations that test their performance on mathematics, science and reading. The 2012 PISA results report that Finland, with its shorter school year and less emphasis on standardized tests and homework, ranked among the top scoring nations. However, so did Singapore, with a much longer school year, heavy doses of homework, and heavy emphasis on standardized tests. The United States continues to perform poorly, scoring in the middle of the global pack.
Educational research is noted for its mixed findings when reporting on the complex nature of teaching and learning. The question of how much time schools allocate for instruction is a frequent topic of study, but rarely includes such variables as the effects of contractual constraints, frequency of disruptions to the instructional day, and rarely, if ever, a cost-benefit analysis. Time, as a measure of effectiveness, has always been confronted with the classical issues of confounding internal and external variables. As a result, studies that examine time rarely find a clear-cut cause and effect.
That said, a little common sense can go a long way in improving conditions for teaching and learning at our secondary schools with or without definitive research findings. To that end, and with the support from the local school board members and strong and confident principals, schools districts can and have significantly increased instructional time in the secondary schools in a number of districts in which I served. Furthermore, no evidence has surfaced to suggest that the additional time provided students in these districts has had any negative effects on student performance.
On the contrary, a number of indicators point to the benefits of additional instructional time for both students and teachers. They include increases in college acceptances, improved performance for economically disadvantaged and minority students, less student disciplinary problems, less class cutting, and improved overall school climate. Here too, these indicators are faced with many confounding variables when applying a traditional quantitative, experimental design but when analyzed in terms of qualitative and descriptive designs, the indicators are very positive. Personal testimony or not, given these results, none of the school districts who have done so have chosen to return to their former traditional schedules.
The Real Secondary School Year
Most public schools operate with a calendar of 180 student days. However, it is not uncommon for districts to encounter a number of disruptions to the instructional programs throughout the year. As a result, the school year is reduced from 180 to about 165 days. The disruptions, although routinely justified and at times unavoidable, include school assemblies, pep rallies, class trips, state and departmental examinations, half days for professional development, and late and early dismissals when weather or operational emergencies occur. Some interruptions are unavoidable; most are not.
The Daily Cost of Schooling
If districts were to calculate the labor cost of one day of instruction in their schools, it should come as no surprise that high schools cost the most to operate, given their size, the required courses needed to graduate, the elective courses offered, and the staffing required to operate the schools.
To calculate all the expenses required to operate a school district, each state reports what they term “per-pupil cost” for all public schools. In Parsippany- Troy Hills, the district where I recently served as the interim superintendent, the per-pupil cost for its approximately 2,000 high school students was $15,200, for a total operating cost of $30.4 million. When divided by the district’s school year of 184 days, the daily operating costs equals $165,217 a day. When the administration calculates the cost of one day of instruction, they may make a greater effort to avoid any disruptions or erosions to the scheduled school day.
PARCC and the Common Core
The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is about to be launched in most states in the next school year. It is aligned with the Common Core Standards and is reported to be more challenging and demanding than the current state assessments. The tests are designed to challenge not only students’ general knowledge but will test their abilities to synthesize, analyze and apply data, as well as to present sound arguments.
For example, in Appendix A of the Common Core ELA Standards, the emphasis is on a student’s ability to construct sound arguments on substantive topics and issues, as this ability is critical to college and career readiness. It will require students have more than mere surface knowledge. They must be able to think deeply and critically and be aware of counter arguments. Knowing these are the standards that lie ahead for our students, we must act to improve how we organize for the most effective use of instructional time, time that will allow for deep and substantive learning experiences.
Effective Use of Time
As you can surmise from these calculations, every minute counts. Common sense should tell us that the more we protect the typical (contractual seven-hour, 420-minute) school day from needless interruptions and allocate as much time as possible to instruction, the more we can improve conditions for teaching and learning and increase the chance for improved student performances.
A troubling practice found in far too many high schools and middle schools is the implementation of a nine- or even ten-period student schedule. The intention is to offer a richer program of studies. The result is that the typical seven-hour contractual day is forced to restrict class periods to no more than forty to forty-five minutes, depending on the time allocated for students to walk from one class to the next. Yet we know that such a short class period limits the number and kind of activities that can take place in the class. Such schedules do not support opportunities for deep and substantive learning to take place and create serious disadvantages for teachers and the students.
Given only forty to forty-five minutes per class and a rich curriculum to present, teachers will often resort to lecturing to students in order to cover the objectives of the course. This places the students in relatively passive roles as listeners, with the occasional hand raised to respond to the teacher’s questions.
Increasing the amount of class time may limit the number of courses students can take, but it affords more time for the teacher to engage students in active learning activities. We know that when learners are active and engaged, they will increase their chances for greater and deeper understanding of the subject offered. In addition, fewer classes provides for a more manageable day for the students. Try shadowing a student who has eight or nine classes and adds one more class rather than take lunch. The best word to describe such a schedule is frenetic.
Unfortunately, misguided parents too often believe that if their child takes as many courses as possible during their four years in high school, he or she will gain access to a highly competitive college or university. However, having spoken with admissions officers from highly competitive colleges and universities, they are not so much interested in how many credits a student amassed over a four-year period, but rather in the rigor of their program of study and how well they performed.
Students who take too many courses and spread themselves too thin will most likely fail to gain the deeper conceptual understanding that colleges will require. They may well lower their overall grade point average, too. Furthermore, admissions officers prefer balance in applicants. They not only look for students who are strong academically but also want to see if students have taken the time to be full participants in co-curricular activities as well. A class schedule designed to “pile on courses” while skipping lunch is a practice that should not be condoned by the board of education or the administration, no matter the political pressures they may encounter by misguided parents.
Many of our students do gain acceptance to higher education but far too many drop out. The New York Times reported on June 25, 2013, that although 70 percent of our students enter into four-year colleges, ranking us among the highest of the developed nations, “less than two-thirds end up graduating.” There is clearly something wrong with how we prepare our secondary school students for college readiness.
Finding Instructional Minutes
Scheduling fewer class periods reduces the passing time needed and the overall movement of students throughout the school day. In addition, many schools continue to set aside as much as ten minutes for a homeroom period in which to make announcements and take attendance. Today’s technology provides schools with swipe cards that quickly record attendance and electronic bulletin boards that can be placed in various locations in the school to provide up-to-date information to students, teachers, and staff. The time saved by eliminating the homeroom period and reducing the number of passing periods can be added to instructional time.
Effective Use of Teachers’ Time
The practice in most districts of assigning teachers to supervisory duties makes little sense. To take your most valued and expensive resources and assign them to such duties as supervising the lunchroom, hallways, study halls, and the in-school suspension room is a poor use of their time. These are assignments that can be carried out by supervisory aides rather than teachers. Why not have teachers spend time in professional work such as planning and preparing for their classes, working with colleagues, observing classes, and providing extra help to students? If we truly believe in the value of having well-prepared teachers and the importance of quality instruction, these highly questionable practices must end.
The Value of Added Time
If, for example, you were able to add just five more minutes to a scheduled forty-minute class, does it really make a difference? Five more minutes equates to a 12.5 percent increase in instructional time. If you multiply .125 by 165 days, it equates to 20.65 more days of instruction over the course of the uninterrupted days of school found in most districts. Knowing the cost would be prohibitive, no one would ever attempt to try to negotiate for an additional twenty days of instructions. Yet, with some adjustments to how time is allocated, you just might find those days are buried in the existing schedule and they cost nothing to mine and use them.
The value added is significant, if for example, in Parsippany they were to add just six more minutes to its current 44-minute class periods, it would equate to an additional 22.5 days at $165,217 for a value added of over $3.7 million, at no cost to the taxpayers.
Finding the Time within the Contractual Day
Close analysis of how time is spent can pay off in a significant increase in instructional time. There have been a number of studies that have examined the time it takes for a classroom of students to become attentive and fully engaged in the instructional process. Much, of course, depends on how prepared and skilled the teacher is and on the motivation and interest of the students. Ethnographic studies have found that even with the most skilled teacher and well-behaved students, there is a portion of the class period that is identified as downtime and can last between three to five minutes.
To find the added time, begin by offering fewer classes per day, rotating the schedule, and increasing the length of class periods to accommodate rich and deep learning opportunities for all students. If the administration is sensitive to the existence of downtime, they will do all they can to minimize interruptions to the time allocated to classroom instruction. In addition, they will work to identify inefficient uses of time throughout the contractual day and reallocate that time to increase instructional opportunities across all disciplines.
We can all agree that more time does not necessarily improve how much students learn. Both teachers and students must put the added time to good use. However, let us also agree that too little instructional time is a burden on each. Let’s make every minute count.