Across the country, there is a push in many school districts for a longer school day and more days in the yearly school calendar in the hopes of a corresponding increase in student achievement. There is a perception that kids in other countries are spending a lot more time in school and that is why their scores on international tests are better than those in the United States. (The number of American school hours is a hard number to pin down as there is considerable variety among the 50 states when looking at school day and school year requirements.) A recent report by The Center for Public Education contradicts this notion that other countries have more school time than we do in the US. The point that the US is not drastically behind (if at all) when it comes to the clock hours kids are in school leads to an opportunity to reflect on what happens “between the bells” when kids are in school. It could be that higher-achieving countries are making better use of time in school.
Questions that come to mind:
- Are students engaged in what is being taught? A teacher could be working really hard to present lessons to kids, but if the material isn’t interesting or relevant to the student, is that time well spent by either the teacher or the students?
- Do teachers have the ability to use a variety of instructional techniques to help students understand skills and concepts? Lectures work for some students, but others may benefit from more active learning. Teachers need to know their students as well as they know their content in order to help the former understand the latter.
- Is our focus spent on the right subject matter? Schools have taken on many responsibilities (some mandated, some by choice) over the past hundred years and a lot of it isn’t strictly related to academic knowledge and skill. (Education advocate Jamie Vollmer summarizes this well.) Schools are great at adding more to their curriculum, but what should we give up?
- Are school day schedules arranged in an optimal way? Schools are seeing good results with moving away from a traditional 8 period day toward block scheduling. Longer class periods allow for more effective and meaningful instructional practices.
Tweaking schedules and calendars is not the quick fix to education reform as we have to acknowledge that learning time is NOT the same thing as school time. Important and powerful learning takes place when students are away from school, and I’m not just talking about time spent on homework. A child’s first teacher is truly a parent. Just like school teachers, some parents are exceptional educators and some are downright detrimental to learning. Most parents (again, just like teachers) have the best of intentions for their children, but not all of them have the time or ability to meet the learning needs of their children. Most of our kids don’t need a parent to reteach an algebra lesson between supper and bed; they might just need positive conversation during supper or in the car. Showing an interest in what happens at school is a powerful message to a child. A weekend trip to the library or a chat about money while at the grocery store won’t be included in the school time calculation, but they are impactful.
There is no silver bullet when it comes to creating the ideal school day schedule or school year calendar, but we have to admit that a uniform schedule won’t meet the needs of all kids, teachers, families, and communities. Right now we treat time as a variable in the learning formula, when we should be treating learning as the constant and time as a variable to meet those learning needs. It’s time to do away with the one size fits all school day and calendar. Not all kids need a longer school day or calendar as there are other resources in their lives that help them be successful students in school. Employee contracts should allow for more flexibility (daily and yearly) to meet student needs. State requirements should also allow flexibility to schools and districts to meet the needs of the students and families in their communities. [Quick side rant: In this era of the need for research-based school practices, where is there research that says Wisconsin students do best when their school year begins on September 1?]
American education (beyond just what happens in schools) received a lot of attention in 2011, and I’m glad it did. We’ve seen a lot that deserves praise, and we’ve found just as much that needs serious reconsideration. Time spent learning and time spent in schools should be at the top of that list.
Hats off to Ryan Bretag for getting me thinking about this topic. Read his fine thoughts here.