More time on task — or just more time?

Extend the school day to improve learning, argues Christopher Gabrieli in U.S. News. He points to Massachusetts, which pays 15 percent more to 26 schools for 30 percent more time.

At Edwards Middle School in Boston, where about 90 percent of students are poor and most school days are 7:20 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., achievement has soared. The eighth-grade gap with the state average has been narrowed by more than half in English and almost 80 percent in math in two years of expanded learning time. The school boasts an outstanding music and arts programs, the only middle school football team in Boston, and an apprenticeship program for every sixth grader.

More than 75 percent of parents of students in the first 10 schools to adopt expanded learning time in Massachusetts indicated the longer day had a positive effect. Teachers report large gains in the ability to reach every student and cover all of the material in depth.

First, learn to use time well, counters Rick Hess.  High-performing schools, such as KIPP,  don’t just lengthen the school day.  They provide “talented and impassioned faculty, firm discipline, a powerful school cultur” and teach “students who have chosen to be there.”

Unfortunately, the “more time” crowd focuses only on the most expensive part of that recipe, apparently hoping the other ingredients will sort themselves out if kids sit in classes longer. In fact, research is more mixed than advocates usually acknowledge.

A 2003 Review of Educational Research analysis tallied dozens of studies and found no systematic evidence that additional time raised student achievement. Some studies, including the 1994 National Education Commission on Time and Learning report, have found increased instructional time modestly linked with higher achievement—but that argues for making good use of time before seeking more.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, teachers spend two-thirds of classtime on instruction, he writes. “The rest is consumed by everything from paperwork to assemblies.”

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  1. Both Christopher Gabrieli and Arne Duncan are mis-led on this gross generalization, and it’s really a matter of cost-benefit analysis. Some students and some districts and some communities will benefit from more time in the classroom; some will not. Clubs, athletics, activities, jobs, volunteering, and internships are positive educational environments for countless students.

    In fact, many populations could use less time in the classroom overall, as AP/IB and dual-credit programs show there are numerous students who are ready for college and/or the workplace long before they have completed the 1080 hours/year for twelve years. The increased cost that comes from keeping students in class longer than they need, or keeping students in an ineffective classroom environment longer, simply do not make sense.

    These sort of comments come from the Joe Biden school of policy. Speak first and think later.

  2. Independent George says:

    I think this is the fundamental problem with education policy. The outputs are not hard to measure, but they often tell you things you don’t want to learn. Therefore, we formulate policy based on inputs, and game the outputs to produce whatever we desire.

  3. I always thought that KIPP started with extended school days, weeks, and years. Anyone know otherwise? Did they wait until they proved they could make good use of shorter times before going to extended times?

  4. It’s nonsense that kids need more time in school for academics. German kids spend significantly less time in the classroom. As homeschoolers, we spend between 4 to 5 hours per day on academics (for a 4th and 6th grader).

    It’s really about how people live. If kids have worthwhile, meaningful things to do with their free time like sports, clubs, or work then more time in the classroom would actually take away from their quality of life. I’m not against unstructured free time, but it’s about what they’re during with those hours. If they spend 5 hours per day watching TV, texting, playing video games, and/or hanging out in unhealthy places then, possibly, more time in a structured environment may be a better option.

  5. Stacy,

    One of the elements of home schooling I’ve always found attractive is the really low student to teacher ratio. I’ve always thought it would be a much more productive use of teaching time than a typical classroom, at least for the children.

  6. Margo/Mom says:

    Stacy’s right. Kids in more affluent neighborhoods have access to more formalized learning experiences (lessons, organized activities, etc) outside of school time. This is one reason that they tend to progress over the summer break while lower income kids tend to stay the same (this is sometimes reported as “summer learning loss” as if some kids are forgetting while others retain–not really the case). I wouldn’t be opposed to schools taking on a role in lower income areas that incorporated more of these kinds of experiences (particularly where one of the current requirements is to offer most of the students “tutoring” because they are below grade level or otherwise “at risk”). But it is crucially important to consider not only how time is currently being used (and why) as well as how the extended time is being proposed for use (and why). If the root cause of the current problem is that the existing time is being eaten away by non-instructional activity (taking attendance, announcements, drills, teacher time away from the classroom) to the detriment of learning–perhaps it would be more cost effective to solve those problems first in ways that don’t involve the full expense of extended school day/year. If the root cause is that much of the instructional time is poorly matched to the student’s learning needs–leading to a proliferation of “unengaged” time, this absolutely should be addressed before adding more time that surely will add little benefit.

  7. I am surprised that “more time” in school is first thought of in terms of a longer school day. I would think first in terms of the school year. Our school year only fills about three quarters of the calendar year. That gives a lot of wiggle room. If we really want to improve educational outcomes then it would seem to me that lengthening the school year would be the obvious first step to take. Many would argue that kids need to summer for other activities. I have observed that a very common summer activity is wasting time and wishing there was something to do.

    What we think of extended time in school depends on what assumption we make about linearity. The basic assumption of linearity would be that achievement is linearly related to time spent. By this assumption if we put in 20% more time we will get 20% more achievement. If we put in 10% less time we should expect 10% less achievement.

    But if think more time in school would give diminishing returns, then we are not assuming linearity. “Sub-linearity”, we might call it. This is something worth thinking about. We are quite aware of diminishing returns in many areas of life. Maybe a 10% increase in the school year will produce only a 5% increase in achievement.

    But I think we should also consider the possibility of “super-linearity”, the idea that, say, 10% increased time in the school year might give 15% more achievement. One line of reasoning to support this would be the common observation that students lose a lot over the summer, and that substantial time must be spent in the fall just to catch up. A longer school year might reduce this slippage. If this is the case then an increase in the length school year might be a bargain.

    We might also consider the possibility of negative linearity. Perhaps a 10% increase in the school day or school year might actually produce a 5% drop in achievement. Then it would be wasteful to lengthen the school year.

    And if we seriously consider negative linearity a possibility, then we certainly ought to consider shortening the school day or the school year. Perhaps six months is the ideal length of the school year, or five hours for the school day. Perhaps anything beyond that is wasted.

    I don’t know how the assumption of linearity holds up for the length of the school day, as opposed to the length of the school year. Perhaps kids tire of hour after hour of learning. If diminishing returns don’t set in after six hours, surely they would after ten or twelve hours. But the assumption of linearity seems a much safer bet for the school year. Or at least it would seem so to me.

    Is there no research to draw on here? Have we nothing to go on but arm chair analysis?

    I have more than once been surprised in a discussion of school time, when I discovered that the person I was talking with was primarily concerned about the convenience of a longer school day. They just wanted free and convenient day care. Let the kids come home after the cocktail hour.

    In recent years I have begun to think of the longer school years as a litmus test of the sincerity of those who claim to want to improve education. If we accept the assumption of linearity then we can get an easy 20% gain in educational accomplishment just by lengthening the school year by 20% or so. Of course it would cost, but it seems to me that a good payoff is a reasonable expectation. I interpret objections to it as simply rationalization. Sure, we want educational improvement, but only providing it is easy, cost free, doesn’t violate any traditions, and perhaps most important of all, not inconvenient.

  8. All depends on how you spend that extra time. Our faculty has raged for years that there should be more class time yet we just spent 14 hours of standardized testing for underclassmen while the seniors played in the gym or watched “Weekend at Bernie’s” in the auditorium. I was told I was the only senior teacher who wanted her students back yesterday while the others watched the movie. I had work to do.

  9. dkzody: Testing is not (or should not) be wasted time. It’s the only way to measure how well the kids have learned. Now, incompetent administrators can turn it into a waste by using tests that don’t match the curriculum, or by in effect ignoring the results – when they give out social promotions to kids that are only going to bog down the next higher class, as well as when they fail to correct the systematic problems testing reveals.

    But schools waste hours of the students’ time every day. Hours and hours are not really instructional or testing time at all, they are babysitting time. (Watching movies… Wait a minute, “Weekend at Bernies”? I suspect that should count as the opposite of instruction – not zero effect, but negative.) All the hours I sat while teachers attempted to teach slower kids things I still knew from the previous year – wasted. Then there were hours of reading instruction in texts that were five to ten years below my reading ability. But it’s not just the smart kids whose time is wasted. That big, slow kid trying to hide in the back – usually his entire day is wasted, because the teacher never reaches him at all.

  10. SuperSub says:

    You’re right, testing is necessary to assess student learning, but often these multi-subject mass standardized tests become projects in their own. Most if not all of the school administration and support staff are occupied with the tests and the school day is completely altered. This is especially so with multi-year classes where half of the class will be absent due to the test.
    In addition to losing the time during the exams, teachers usually are encouraged to take time beforehand to ‘prepare’ the students, especially if the format of the exam is different from what the students usually see. Even worse, teachers can alo be pulled out of class for days afterwards to grade the exams. All in all, two full weeks of instruction can be lost to administer these standardized exams.
    Of course, the same result can be reached by a teacher-made test given during normal class time.

  11. Margo/Mom says:


    I think that there has been research, and my quick googling didn’t get me to the origins, just lots references to. But the gist of the research is that school time subdivides into the overall allocated time, the amount of time actually spent on instruction (or time on task) and “academic learning time.” This last respond to what you were getting at–when the instruction is going over the head of, or boring to tears, some portion of students in the class for him the instruction is a poor match to their learning needs. This last, of course is the smallest proportion of the day/year. So, blanketing in “more time” whether a longer day or year, is likely to increase the waste by an equal proportion that it exists in the first place. Better to get a good firm grasp on exactly what is going on first. I haven’t been to a school lately that didn’t routinely interrupt whatever was going on for some kind of loudspeaker announcements. Some communication is necessary. Without paying attention, however, it is easy for things to get out of hand. My favorite was a tirade in a high school aimed at students who were not dressed according to the dress code. The administrator went on for about five minutes graphically describing some of the many ways that a high schooler could be inappropriately dressed for school. The, apparently someone let her know that not all of the kids had been in classrooms to hear this (they had “small schools” and some were at lunch), so five minutes later, she repeated the whole thing again. Imagine if they had committed to limiting announcements (for anything short of a fire) to five minutes in homeroom, or sending emails or IMs to teachers when they needed to communicate rather than calling over the loudspeaker.

    I have seen schools that cut down time between classes to two minutes in order to allow more class time. Problem is that the kids couldn’t reasonably be expected to traverse the crowded halls in that time. So, as a result, the bell became meaningless, and it took an additional five or six minutes after the bell ring to clear the halls (before the teachers gave up and just closed their doors–leaving a cadre of regular stragglers out and unsupervised). Somehow it seems they weren’t really paying attention to time.

    Dkzody–good for you. And how come they couldn’t show kids something engaging that might have included just bit of learning? Weekend at Bernies??? tsk tsk tsk.