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Keep education reform focus
on quality instruction time

 

It’s About Quality Time

            By Billee Bussard
SummerMatters Editor

     The debate on the merits of a longer school year has been around for a long time.

     Critics of longer school years, including respected educators, education researchers, and newspaper  editorial pages immediately questioned the wisdom of such recommendations in  each of the government reports  that have surfaced over the last two decades, beginning with A Nation At Risk, issued April 26, 1983.

    Critics point to studies on time and retention levels, especially of elementary age students. They also point to flawed assumptions in those reports about the amount of classroom instructional time of American children vs. children of U.S. industrial competitors.

     When Sugekawa Kenji, superintendent of schools in Hiroshima, Japan, visited Virginia Beach, he said Japanese students seem overloaded with work and couldn’t learn at all. He believes the additional school days in the Japanese school year contribute to emerging problems with truancy, vandalism and dropouts. (Virginian Pilot, August 2, 1992)

    Among the early critics of this longer school year was Nancy Karweit, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University. Karweit  believes adding more days to the school calendar is no guarantee that additional time will be used for better education.  Because school resources are limited, other reform options “have a greater potential payoff than simply keeping the school doors open for a longer period of time,”  (Karweit, June/July, 1985)

    The false assumption that more time means more learning is revealed in a report by the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Report Card on American Education, 1994. It found the highest ranking states in several student performance indicators including the SAT, AC T, NAEP and graduation rates have the same number of required days as the lowest ranking states.

The Myth: More  Time Means More Learning

    The myth that more time means more learning is revealed in a report by The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which was subject of a U.S.A. Today story,  April 12, 1995.  It showed U.S. students actually get more instructional time in the classroom than their peers in 15 other Western countries.  Higher test scores of the students in many of those countries than those of U.S. students have been the basis for support of a longer school year by U.S. school reformers.

     Criticism  of effort to extend the school year continues today on many fronts, most recently in a commentary by Leon Botstein, President of Bard College. Botstein wrote in a January New York Times commentary:

     “Lengthening school time as it is now utilized might even lower achievement. American students are falling behind because they are bored and poorly taught. Making them stay longer in the institutions that are failing them extends a form of incarceration that will only further depress the motivation to learn.”
 

    Other reports show that while the school year of Pacific Rim and European competitors are longer, a close examination reveals they don’t actually receive more instructional time in the classroom.  Counted in the extra days of their school years are club activities (what Americans regard as after-school activity), field trips or even the time for required child labor to maintain, clean and repair  the schools.

    Some of the harshest criticism of the longer school year comes from the very countries used as models for U.S. school  in  government reports that support a longer year. The Japanese have been moving to decrease in-school time and develop more well-rounded students like those in the United States.  (Washington Post, March 4, 1992, “For US Students, Few Days Off: Americans Turn to Longer School Year Just As Japan Trims Calendar”) 

      Officials from Japan and Singapore who have visited the United States in recent years, said their systems tend to stifle creativity, which they view as a critical component of America’s economic success.  An official from Singapore said the only thing their students do well is take tests.                                                                         

         

Government studies made false assumptions

     The report that has served as a catalyst for much of the experimentation with the school calendar, Prisoners of Time, argued that the time available in a uniform, six-hour day and 180-day year is the unacknowledged design flaw in American education. But extending the  year was just one of eight recommendations in that  million dollar, two-year study released by the National Commission on Time and Learning in May 1994.  Its recommendation for a longer year was criticized immediately by educators as out of touch, misguided and not cost effective. The report  failed to specify  what the length of an effective school year should be or who should pay for the added days. 

     What set the stage for hundreds of failed school calendar experiments in the South over the last decade was a 37-page report issued in 1992 by the Southern Growth Policies Board, which is composed of elected officials and influential business and civic leaders from 13 Southern states and Puerto Rico.  Much of the information about the benefits of longer school years in earlier government reports are parroted in this report, including recommendations for a school term like ones in schools of  industrial competitors.

     The Southern Growth Policies Board report, which borrowed findings from earlier government reports, said the year-round calendar is an incremental step toward the longer school year.  The year-round calendar is viewed as a means to break the " psychological barrier” of the longer summer vacation, the report said.

     A follow-up of   the “model” schools showcased in Southern Growth  and other government reports reveals the astonishing fact that nearly all have returned to a traditional school year.

     All but a few of the 37 year-round schools in five Southern states mentioned in  the Southern Growth Polices Board report have since returned to a traditional school year.

     Florida had 27 of those schools in nine school districts, but by the 2000-2001 school year only Brevard used a year-round schedule, and then  in just three schools.  Orange County, which once held the dubious distinction as the nation’s second largest year-round school district, went from 66 year-round schools in 1994 to ZERO. However, two schools there were  experimenting with an extended year-program, which effectively places those schools on a year-round calendar.

      More evidence that more of the same kind of instruction fails is found in recent studies of children who repeat a grade.

     The Southern Regional Educational Board makes note in a white paper on retention and promotion of  the studies on  Chicago students who repeated a grade but did no better two years after the retention year than similar students who had been promoted. 

     “Two years after the initial retention, less than half of all retained students had managed to achieve a passing score.”  Summer school remediation programs  “could not compensate for poor quality instruction during the regular school year,” the report said.      
    
Among the report’s recommendations: Schools need to deal with learning problems during the school year, “make sure that the overall quality of teaching in every classroom is high, reduce class size in low performing schools, intensively monitor and report on teacher training, technical assistance and after-school initiatives."

(Retention and Promotion in South Carolina, Southern Regional Education Board, August 2000).

More Money, More Time Hasn't Worked

     In addition to  the government studies,  motivation for  experiments with an extended year stem also  from state and federal incentive funds designated for pilot programs.  In 1994, Congress adopted an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Act to authorize $72 million a year to be given to schools that operate 210 days per year.  Goals 2000 and sections of  Title I programs for disadvantaged or at-risk kids offer calendar experiment funds.

      But school districts are finding more of the same isn’t working, and that accepting these incentive funds could be a costly proposition.  For example, after Duval County, Fla., weighed the $1.3 million it would get from Goals 2000 for extending the school year at three schools, it   found it would go in a hole financially and abandoned the idea. (From  interview with Duval County school officials.)

     There are better ways to spend money to improve education than extending the school year, say critics like Botstein:.

           
    
“The money that politicians would use to keep schools open longer should instead address the true causes of other countries' superior performances: recruitment and training of effective teachers, a focus on basic academic subjects and high standards for classroom materials. Only when we have 178 school days that function well should we consider what to do with the rest of children's time.” 

     In “Time For Results” released in 1986, the National Governors’ Association recommended the year-round calendar, which extends the school year 20 days or more with its intersessions for children who are falling behind.  Yet the cost savings and educational benefits it discussed have failed to materialize in thousands of schools and more than 400 school districts that have experimented  with  year-round calendar "intersessions".

     It is interesting to note that year-round school has largely been bypassed in the very state of the governor, Ted Schwindent of Montana,  who  was responsible for the year-round calendar recommendation  in the National Governors' report.   Fifteen years later,  Montana has only ONE year-round school, and that one isn't  a typical school. It is a residential treatment program that serves  about 125 troubled youth and children with special learning disabilities.

Put Focus on Teacher Training

      The answer to improving schools is clearly restructuring the time we now spend in the classroom and focusing on teacher training.

       The Bard College president said it well: “We waste too much of our children's time. In the last four years of American schooling — high school — pupils study the core subjects of mathematics, science, history, the national language and literature for less than half the time French and Japanese students do. Only 41 percent of the American high school day is spent this way. It should come as no surprise that a 1999 study financed by the Education Department, 'Is It Just a Matter of Time?' concluded that it is the quality of education time that is the critical determinant of how much students will learn.

        “Another issue is who is doing the teaching. In all the countries that outperform us in math and science, from Singapore to Russia, a higher percentage of teachers has extensive training in the subject matter they teach. Their degrees are not in that amorphous field called education. A 1996 Education Department survey revealed that the majority of American math and science teachers do not have academic degrees in math or science. These teachers are entirely dependent on state-mandated, second-rate textbooks and teaching manuals,” Borstein said.

      The late Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the longer school year was not the answer to better education. “Simply giving students more of the same is unlikely to solve our education problems.” He said more effective ideas are to implement ways to make better use of technology or experiment with new teaching methods and materials, not  “keep students in their seats a couple of extra months."  (Scripps Howard News Service).

     A Sacramento Union columnist summed it well:      

     
“If the problem with our educational system is time, let’s give more. If the problem is money, we’ll spend more. But if the problem is in the system, more of an incorrect thing won’t make it work.” 

Calendar Change Won't Help Test Scores

     Today, much of the push for early school start dates and longer school years is linked to the notion that getting more instructional days in before high stakes testing will improve scores.  But when Dallas compared the test scores of students who started school as much as three weeks earlier than others, it found no scoring advantage, according to a recent report in a Texas newspaper (The Austin American-Statesman, Dec. 1, 2000, Page 1). Similarly, the Broward County school system reported it found no testing advantage in the scores of Florida schools that stated earlier, according to media reports last fall.

     One school committee in Ohio spent a year researching the effects of a longer school year and reported no correlation between the amount of time students were in school and test scores. Gerald Martau, committee chairman and deputy schools superintendent, reported more productive time is the key to success and there are too many variables in education to believe time is a real factor. His committee found a longer school year adds significant cost which available research cannot justify. (Lakewood Sun Post, May 7, 1992)

Texas Lesson In Time and Learning

     The fallacy that longer years will mean more learning and higher  scores is dramatically illustrated in Hutto, Texas, which saw test scores of its 1,200 student  improve when it cut instructional days in the school year from 180 to as few as 165.

     Since 1992, funding saved from trimming seat time in the classroom for Hutto students has been spent providing teachers with additional training, ranging from efficiency of classroom operations to new instructional methods, according to Ben Carson, who as assistant superintendent of schools oversees instruction. The result: Test scores have improved or remained stable every year since.

     Carson said that what is happening in this small community 20 miles northeast of Austin, is strong evidence that improving education is a matter of quality time, not quantity. The improvements led to Hutto’s only elementary school becoming a designated model school for the state, he said.  Carson also credits a literacy program developed in New Zealand for performance improvements. [ For more information, contact Ben Carson at (512) 759-3771.]

           Sentencing children to more of the same  is a cruel hoax. It's time  to unshackle school reform  from  a warped view of time and learning.

 

Here are  some notes on other
 noteworthy research and comments 
on the longer school year:

National Education Association review of the research comes to an “inescapable conclusion: Given the way schools currently use time, an increase in school days is not enough to reach defined achievement goals in most schools.” (NEA Oct. 1987) Karweit agrees that  “learning takes time but providing time does not in itself ensure that learning will take place.” ---National Education Association. (1987, Oct.) What Research Says About: Extending the School Day/Year: Proposals and Results: National Education Association.

According to the Commission on Time and Learning, “little attention is paid to how [time] is used; only 41 percent of secondary school time must be spent on core academic subjects.” (May 1994)

Harold Stevenson, whose research includes comparisons of Asian and American education, says “Unfortunately, suggestions to modify the school year have been made on the basis of casual observation of what appears to occur in Asia, rather than on reliable information."  The real differences can be found in cultural and parental attitudes, write Stevenson and researcher James Stigler.  Asian parents place make academics a child’s primary focus, resulting in children spending less time playing sports and doing  chores.

The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, which is the standard source for international comparisons of achievement,  has consistently concluded since 1964 that the total instructional hours during a school year has no significant relationship to achievement. Their data show that except for foreign language instructions, increasing classroom time  for specific subjects is not likely to improve performance of  American students.--National Education Association. (1987, Oct.) What Research Says About: Extending the School Day/Year: Proposals and Results: National Education Association.  

 Weekly Reader  found in a 1994 national survey of 19,000 elementary students that 81 percent opposed a longer school year. --Columbus Dispatch, September 6, 1994.