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Lesson 4.3

School Hours:
Is There Enough Time To Learn?

What do school assemblies, tests and birthdays have in common?

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Image: 10:02:14 CC A. Strakey

Each year consists of about 6,000 waking hours. Children in America, on average, spend about 1,000 of them in school.

Hours-5-to-1

Not including after-school programs, most American children spend about six hours per day in school – fewer in lower grades and more in higher ones. How are those hours actually spent? Are they sufficient? Does changing the number of hours make any difference?

Yes, Time Matters.

As common sense would suggest, learning takes time. All other things being equal, places where students get more “time on task” are places where students tend to learn more. One elegant study found a clever way to verify the educational impact of time: it examined the effect of “snow days” (which vary in number by school and by year) on test results. Sure enough, when snow piles up, scores fall down. A day here or there actually does make a measurable difference.

The National Center for Time and Learning collects research about time in American education, and argues that there should be more of it: “While the expectations for how schools prepare the next generation of American workers and citizens have risen dramatically, education and policy leaders have usually not updated policies and practices around learning time to meet these mounting demands. The school calendar looks much the same as it did a century ago…” (From The Case For More Learning Time)

What exactly do we mean when we talk about a school day, or a school week, or a school year? These things matter when trying to compare programs. How much time is enough to add up to a “course”? About a century ago, the Carnegie Foundation played a role in setting standards for course length, particularly for higher education. A “Carnegie unit” is 120 hours of instruction. The standard is still in use.

Comparisons are Tricky.

Schools in different parts of the country and around the world use time in very different ways, and also count it in different ways. In an effort to permit comparisons, or at least to spur inquiry, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) collects global data about hours of instruction. Most reports based on the OECD data make America look pretty good: they seem to suggest that American kids spend at least as much time in school as kids in other countries do. But the harder you scratch at the data, the harder it is to take the comparisons too seriously. The data is gathered by survey, and the methodology and even the questions vary from place to place. Grade level groupings used in the surveys are responsive to the different ways that schools are organized locally, and the surveys are massive.

International comparisons of education time are further complicated by the fact that not all learning time is part of the “official” system. In Japan and Korea, for example, formal school days are shorter, but there are more of them. Many families invest significant hours at private after-school and weekend “cram schools” that help their children prepare for standardized tests and college entry exams.

There’s an apples-and-oranges problem, too. Does it make sense to compare time spent in systems that are teaching different things? In Japan and China, students spend many hours learning to write characters accurately and legibly, a skill not needed in western societies. The OECD survey suggests that most European countries invest about a tenth of primary-grade instructional hours in the study of international languages. Few American primary schools teach international languages at all. (See page 351 in the OECD's massive Education at a Glance report.)

If comparing school hours is too finicky, perhaps a broader approach can shed light: how many days per year is school in session? On this metric, America looks less impressive.

Most California schools are in session for 180 days per year. (The number dipped a bit in the Great Recession and rebounded in the recovery.) California’s number of school days is similar to most other states. Unfortunately, there are no reliable, easily comparable statistics about the number of days schools are in session in other countries. UNESCO has assembled reports of varying detail on a country-by-country basis, but the days of instruction is not a standard item in the reports. National holidays differ from one place to another, as do traditions about seasonal breaks in the school calendar.

The number of days per year that school is in session for students is not an easy figure to come by. However, there is evidence to suggest that by international standards 180 days of school is a low number.

Does a Day Make a Difference?

Not all school time is instructional time. In 2009 the Education-Trust West investigated instructional time in California schools. This research found that the true instructional school year is significantly shorter than it seems on paper due to the “overhead” of school events, assemblies, testing days, birthday celebrations and the like.

Not all school time is instructional. Students in a 180-day calendar only put in about 100 instructional days per year.

In the Great Recession, many California schools cut the five most important days from their school calendar. Which five? Not birthdays, or testing days, or assemblies or other “special” days. The “punchline” of the EdTrust West study is sobering: filtering out those occasions, students in a 180-day calendar only put in the equivalent of about 100 instructional work days per year. When a school adds or removes days from its calendar, the marginal day added or lost is a “normal” day of instruction, when teachers can focus on the core task of teaching!

Time for Relationships

School time is not all about academics. The school experience is also about relationships. Some charter school operators (like KIPP) regard a longer school day as a vital element of their program design. Beyond the academic effect of additional instructional time, a longer day in school may raise the likelihood that school serves as the central context for children’s social relationships.

The National Center for Time and Learning is dedicated to significantly increasing learning time. It also provides research into how schools and districts are using time effectively, the core topic of the next lesson.

Updated May 2017

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
June 13, 2017 at 11:10 am
Just came across this article and am happy to see others who see the same issue. I'm from Australia and I see the same thing - less and less instructional hours and a shifting of the work no non school time and in effect parents. We operate on around 180 operating days per year with a variety of events reducing that. Over an operating week it barely equates to 20 instructional hours. Over a child's school life they spend barely 9% of thier total hours (asleep or awake) in face to face learning. That's not to suggest some of the other activities at school are not useful - it is to suggest 9% is woefully inadequate. By the way on average kids watch more television than that over a year. And what about all the infrastructure only open half the year - what a waste! I'm all for ulilising the infrastructure more and delivering more of what schools are supposed to do - teach kids. I find it enormously frustrating in Australia and interested to note it being observed elsewhere.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar October 27, 2016 at 4:26 pm
A report from the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access takes a careful look at instructional time loss. It finds:

California students attending high-concentration poverty schools are not able to access as much instructional time as the majority of their peers. It highlights ways that community stressors and chronic problems with school conditions lead to far higher levels of lost instructional time in these high schools.

Read the report: https://idea.gseis.ucla.edu/projects/its-about-time/Its%20About%20Time.pdf

user avatar
Mark MacVicar August 13, 2015 at 4:36 pm
Just a quick google turned up this interesting reference published in 2011 http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Organizing-a-school/Time-in-school-How-does-the-US-compare
user avatar
Mark MacVicar August 13, 2015 at 5:24 pm
Another interesting article referencing a study by the Pew Research Center and another by OECD http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/american-kids-will-spend-an-average-of-943-hours-in-elementary-school-this-year/
user avatar
Janet L. April 20, 2015 at 7:13 pm
"... filtering out all the noise, students in a 180-day calendar only put in the equivalent of about 100 instructional work days per year..."
Oh my. "School events, assemblies, testing days, birthdays and the like" are significant to their learning. Certainly they don't teach to the test, but these events and activities teach our children in ways that should not be discounted. Social interaction, understanding and acceptance of other cultures, social responsibilities and more are taught during this "noise" and is significant in forming the adults and leaders these children will become.
I'm not opposed to longer school days or calendars, but I can't discount the advantage of the so-called "noise" our kids are experiencing.
user avatar
Tara Massengill April 17, 2015 at 7:19 pm
In my experience (both from going to school myself and having my child in school), I am unpleasantly surprised by the school hours for elementary schools in the SDUSD. In Tennessee, Texas, and Nebraska schools hours are from 8 am to 3pm (or something equivalent). Here in San Diego, it's 7:58 am to 2:20 pm (4 days a week), and 7:58 am to 12:05 pm on Wednesdays. I get that SoCal doesn't need to have built-in snow days, but it just doesn't seem like the kids are there long enough to learn all of the things they need to learn.
user avatar
hwilde April 2, 2015 at 9:40 am
To lb2vta- Many schools celebrate the 100th day for kindergartners. As they are learning to count to 100 this is fantastic opportunity to focus on this academic achievement in a way that engages students in fun and active ways.
To Sherry- Teacher collaboration and professional development does quite the opposite of reducing the number of effective instructional days. In fact research shows that educators who have time to work in teams or partnerships within and across grade level and fine tune their skills through professional development are more engage and excited about teaching and learning which translates to students who are more engaged and excited about learning within the context of the classroom and beyond.
user avatar
lb2vta March 19, 2015 at 11:41 pm
Why is the 100th day of school celebrated? Just curious if others do this? It seems to me that there is a tendency to go into second gear from this point to the end of the school year.
user avatar
Sherry Schnell January 22, 2015 at 10:38 am
Pulling teachers out of class during instructional time to engage in collaboration or professional development further reduces the number of effective instructional days.
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