Will Increasing Class Time Help?

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 23, 2007; 11:20 AM

Many compelling issues compete for the attention of us school nerds. No Child Left Behind is always there, like a crazy aunt in the kitchen. Testing, teacher quality, homework, college admissions -- it is hard to choose.

My favorite at the moment is time. Are our students getting enough hours of teaching and learning to reach the achievement goals we have set? Should the school day, or the school year, be longer?

There is plenty in the news on this. Massachusetts has launched a $6.5 million public-private partnership to lengthen the school day in 10 schools in five districts. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, one of the cleverest of the pack of presidential candidates descending upon us, has proposed both a longer school day and a longer school year for low-performing schools in his state. Policy makers in Minnesota, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Illinois are all considering adding time for learning.

And now, thanks to my frequent prayers to all the relevant deities for some coherent summary of what is known on this subject, we have a new report, "On the Clock: Rethinking the Way Schools Use Time," by Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based think tank Education Sector. Silva got some money from the Broad Foundation and produced the clearest and most insightful piece of writing on this subject I have seen. For those of us who are often short of time, she blessedly did it in only 14 pages, including footnotes.

Readers (including many of my editors) who complain about my wasting precious minutes of THEIR day getting to the point deserve a quick summary. Here it is, in Silva's words:

"Research shows that extending the right kind of time to the students who need it most can improve student learning and effectively close achievement gaps between poor and minority students and their more affluent peers. It can also enhance the rigor and relevance of a school's curriculum by providing more time for core academic subjects without sacrificing other subjects. And it can improve teaching by providing opportunities for teacher planning, collaboration and professional development. But the preponderance of evidence on extending time in schools suggests that the benefits of adding time to the school day or year are by no means certain or universal."

Silva starts by debunking, once again, the notion that we have long summer vacations because of old agrarian traditions that demanded kids stayed home to plow the fields, or something. This myth survives despite several attempts to quash it. Silva's attempt will likely also fail. It was the rising urban middle and upper classes, not those poor families on the farms, that cut the schedule back by demanding more vacation time for their kids to get out of the summer city heat and rest their minds. For example, Silva notes that New York, Detroit, Philly and Buffalo in the early 19th century kept their schools open more than 250 days a year, far more than the current average of about 180 days.

In the past 40 years, she says, American school time has settled into a rut. Nearly everybody does 170 to 180 days a year, five days a week and six and a half hours a day.

When scholars look carefully at how that time is used, the situation becomes much more complex. Silva presents the researchers' view of school time as four circles of diminishing size, each of the smaller ones being part of the larger ones. The biggest is allocated school time, those 6.5 hours a day. Somewhat smaller is allocated class time, the hours you spend with your teacher after you subtract lunch, recess and trips to the principal to discuss the shaving cream in his file drawer. Smaller than that is instructional time, when your teacher is presenting a lesson and not taking roll or catching you reading Sports Illustrated. The smallest is academic learning time, when all the pedagogical stars are aligned and you are actually listening to and understanding what she is saying.

Increasing allocated school time and class time does not increase achievement much, if at all, the research shows. "But the correlation between time and achievement increases when students are given more instructional time," Silva says, "and it is even greater when students' academic learning time increases."

She cites a fascinating 1998 report by BetsAnn Smith of Michigan State University showing a typical school day in Chicago delivered less than 240 of the state-mandated 300 minutes of daily instruction because of start-up routines, unnecessary interruptions, test preparation and poor classroom management. A 1980 study of teacher behaviors and competencies by Charles Fisher and David Berliner found that in certain subjects, students were getting no more than four (that is not a typo) to 52 minutes a day of actual learning time.

Do other countries provide more class time and use it more productively? Silva says the United States lags behind much of the world in instructional hours per year -- only 799 compared to Finland (861), South Korea (1,079), Netherlands (911) and Japan (926), the top four countries in a recent international math test. But we also had fewer instructional hours than four countries that ranked below us on that test, Portugal (889), Italy (884), Greece (806) and Turkey (825).

Independent consultant Timothy DeRoche found a strong correlation between more instructional time and higher scores on the same math test. But Pennsylvania State University researcher David Baker found "either a weak positive relationship or no statistically significant relationship between more time and improved scores," Silva says.

When Silva investigated the effect of more learning time on low-income children, she discovered the most significant research was not about lengthening the school day, but reducing learning loss over the summer. Duke University researcher Harris Cooper concluded the average loss was the equivalent of about a month for a typical student and much worse for low-income students who did not have the same out-of-school learning opportunities affluent children have.

Silva notes the impressive achievement data from low-income programs such as the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and the Edison Schools, but she says there are doubts about how much their longer school days and school years have to do with it. Better teaching and discipline also play a roll, she says. She tells the interesting story of Edison's decision to stop adding four weeks to its school year because of teacher complaints and increased student absenteeism. Instead, it focused on increasing the school day by 90 minutes.

The costs of extending the school year can be daunting. Minnesota school superintendents dropped a plan to increase from 175 to 200 school days because it would cost $750 million. Public support is also uncertain. Polls show people split 48 percent for and 49 percent against extending school time. On the more precise question of extending the school day by an hour, there is growing support, from 37 percent in 1982 to 67 percent last year. Teachers are deeply split on increasing school time, however, even if they are paid more.

It will take much more than adding hours to improve learning, Silva concludes. The research she presents backs her up. Longer days all by themselves aren't the answer. What children need is more good teaching during those days. Just how to make that happen requires more than just telling groaning children they are going to have to spend more time on their lessons.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company