Keep education reform focus
on quality instruction time
It’s About Quality Time
By Billee Bussard
The debate on the merits of a longer school year has been around for a
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.
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,
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
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
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.
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
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
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
and Promotion in South Carolina, Southern Regional Education Board, August
More Money, More Time
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
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
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.
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.”
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)
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.
are some notes on other
noteworthy research and comments
on the longer school year: