by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
How many times have you heard Mel Riddile or I say that “given adequate time and assistance, every child can learn?” Too many times to count, I am sure. Why? Mel Riddile sincerely believes that the key to success in education is maximizing contact time between teachers and students. He even once bought t-shirts for his entire faculty with the statement “It’s about Time” emblazoned on the pockets. And now there is more concrete evidence of the accuracy of these convictions. A recent Washington Post editorial has shown that there is a clear link between student success and the use of increased class time and the KIPP program. According to the paper:
“A NEW REPORT documents again that middle school students in the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) outperform their counterparts in traditional public schools — and debunks some of the arguments often used to discount KIPP’s success. One reason KIPP students learn more is that they are in school more.”
It is critical to note that the mere extension of time is not by itself a guarantee of improved student achievement. What KIPP is doing and what others should emulate is that they are using their time in a far more efficient manner. Some of their innovations would not be possible in the public sector due to the cost involved. Their school day is from 7:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., which is at least two hours more than most systems. Many KIPP schools have Saturday sessions. In today’s economic climate, the funds needed to have similar programs in public education are, unfortunately, not available. (That situation will be the focus of a future blog.) But the one KIPP innovation that deserves to be emulated is their approach to the summer. Instead of having the vast amount of down time associated with the majority of public schools, the KIPP centers have placed several weeks of mandatory instruction right in the middle of the traditional break.
Inertia can be unproductive
American schools continue to cling to an agrarian calendar that was far more appropriate when our children actually planted the crops in the spring, tended to them in the summer and assisted in the fall harvest. While most institutions have moved beyond the 19th century, education, at least in structuring its calendar, is hanging onto the good old days. And the public seems content with the status quo. We have replaced working in the fields with trips to the beach, part time jobs, camps, and amusement parks. In the state of Virginia there is a practice commonly known as “The Kings Dominion Rule” which says that public schools cannot open until after Labor Day in order to ensure both the availability of a young work force and the possibility for families to visit the various state theme parks through the first weekend in September. Combining this statute with a fluke in the calendar and in the summer of 2009 most students in the Commonwealth had twelve weeks without school. Throw in standardized testing for the last few weeks of school and students are out of contact with direct instruction for more than 25% of the year. Is it any wonder that the first month of most school years is spent on review?
The difference in contact time between typical public education and KIPP is immense. The Post estimates it at about 600 more hours per year. While it would be unrealistic to try to narrow that gap at this time, currently many districts are headed in the wrong direction and actually exacerbating the problem. To save money, calendars are being cut, classes are being enlarged and programs are being cancelled. In many districts, remediation is being built into the day either through expanded lunch periods or separate periods, thus further reducing actual class time.
There are, however, steps that can be taken to better utilize the time currently available. These would not cost additional funds but would require courageous and determined leadership to break some long-held habits.
Create a 12-month school year. Put down the hoe and pick up a book. Or rather, leave the beach and head for the classroom. Create four ten-week grading periods. Place breaks of two weeks in the fall and spring, three weeks in winter and five weeks in the summer. Intervention sessions can be incorporated in the shorter breaks as well as teacher workdays. Most summer schools have been truncated to less than five weeks so they can still be available if needed.
Schools should consider the 4×4 plan. Instead of having six or seven classes, offer students four classes in each of the ten-week sessions. These classes would meet in a full block every day thus completing a semester of work each session. This change would allow students to enroll in eight courses in a calendar year. The blocks would be slightly shorter than other schedules but by meeting every day review would be significantly reduced and ultimately create more class time for original work.
Every minute of the school day should be used for learning. If the day begins at 7:20 and ends at 2:05 every minute should be utilized to educate. Pep rallies, class and club meetings, and remediation will be held after school. If they are important enough to disrupt teaching, they should be important enough to stay after to attend. Creating a culture that believes that school activities can be consummated after the last class expands the day for everyone.