Instructional Time versus "Seat Time"
A current hot trend in the school reform debate centers on the time we spent educating students and how that time is scheduled.
As usual with education debates, evaluation of what the data means is somewhat mixed.
Over the course of the past few years, efforts to reform the amount of time students are required to spend in the elementary and secondary pipeline have run in very different directions – just look at the efforts cited below.
- “Our K-12 system largely still adheres to the century-old, industrial-age factory model of education. A century ago, maybe it made sense to adopt seat-time requirements for graduation . . .” - Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education
- "There’s no real apparent correlation between time and meeting AYP (adequate yearly progress)," - Kathryn Matayoshi, Superintendent, Hawaii State Department of Education
In Indiana and Utah the traditional 13 year approach to the public school pipeline is undergoing review by the state legislatures. A coordinated effort to reduce the time from kindergarten to graduation by two full school years is underway in Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont. The positive effects of 4 day weeks and shorter school days on teachers, students and district finances has been the subject of studies painting a positive overall picture, and perhaps offering school systems a way to reduce cost without impacting students learning.
On the other hand, reform focused on lengthening both the school day and the academic calendar has been trending upward as well. These competing reform efforts collide in states like Indiana, where even as the state legislature looks to codify early graduation, Indianapolis schools propose a dramatic increase in seat time for all students. Longer school days are the focus of efforts in Chicago. The data on year-round schooling and extended school days show mixed results but the concept has the support of national leaders, including the President of the United States, who said, "(S)tudents are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer. ... The idea of a longer school year, I think, makes sense. Now, that’s going to cost some money ..., but I think that would be money well spent."
As far as virtual schooling – that’s a subject for yet another blog post in the future. The discussion currently centers on quantifiable numbers, but what lies underneath the debate between more or less time in the classroom is a more complex qualitative issue. In a global study of intended instructional time and official school curricula, Aaron Benavot defined instructional time as: “official time for non-instructional activities such as breaks, recesses, examinations and the like” He further states that: “Despite expectations to the contrary, there is no conclusive evidence of a worldwide increase in intended instructional time between the 1980s and 2000s . . . many systems in Southwest Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, and Western Europe reduced instructional time.”
Rather defining the debate in terms of seat time, should we be looking more closely at what qualifies as instructional time? Elena Silva sets forth a qualitative approach to looking at reform in On the Clock: Rethinking the Way Schools Use Time focusing on the following questions:
• How is time in school currently spent?
• How much time is spent on academic instruction in a given school day and in a given class period?
• How well are teachers able to cover the curriculum within existing time constraints?
• Do problems stem from ineffective teaching or poor curriculum coverage relative to state standards?
• How much time is lost to poor classroom management or “dead time,” when students are dozing or waiting for instruction?
• Are events, field trips and testing schedules aligned to complement the curriculum?
• Do teachers and students feel that they have enough time for learning and, if not, what do they want more time for?
If the time spent on task increases, is it reasonable to infer that total time spent in the school could actually decrease?
- “What matters most are those catalytic moments when students are absorbed in instructional activities that are adequately challenging, yet allow them to experience success…. Only when time is used more effectively will adding more of it begin to result in improved learning outcomes” - Julie Aronson, Joy Zimmerman, and Lisa Carlos