Is the Traditional School Schedule Outmoded?

Over the last several years, a variety of factor--including budget cuts, advances in technology, and efforts to boost graduation rate--have forced school systems to reconsider the amount of time students spend in school. Some states have begun awarding credits based on mastery rather than "seat time." Other states have given districts leeway to shorten the school week to four days. And in some cases, federaland local officials have offered incentives for low-performing schools to extend learning time.

How do you think schools can maximize what time they do have with students? How might teachers' time be structured differently to achieve better results for students? Is the traditional six-hour day/180-day year still the most viable--or productive--student schedule? There are also countless options for restructuring "school time" that have yet to be explored. What do you imagine the school "day" or "year" could look like in the future?

June 21, 2012

A Vision of School Time for 2020

Dedy Fauntleroy

The alarm clock rings. Is it 2020 already? I look in the mirror—I've aged well!

I put in my "flex hour" of planning time before school. Some split the hour, some plan after school, and others meet collaboratively. No more clock watching—teachers are trusted to organize their schedules to suit their professional roles.

My 5th graders and I begin the day with our language arts block. Afterwards, they have mandatory recess. This is based on the premise that children learn best in chunks of time, interspersed with opportunities to exercise and socialize. (On the way back to class for our math block, we see a first-year teacher and her veteran co-teacher. Much like a medical resident, she co-teaches with her mentor for a year before being fully certified.)

Then it's lunch hour—which is an actual hour. The administration and instructional assistants conduct family-style meals with the children, followed by some recess time. Meanwhile, teachers eat a duty-free lunch then and participate in collaboration time with colleagues of different grade levels, specialties, and professional roles. Some teams opt to use the entire hour as a collaboration "working lunch."

After lunch—while students are learning about art, dance, music, PE, or technology—grade-level teams meet. We plan lessons, craft common assessments, look at student work together, discuss students of concern, and evaluate the effectiveness of interventions. (On the way to my meeting, I pass the librarian who is meeting by webinar with his district colleagues.)

Next my class studies astronomy—one of a series of interdisciplinary units that integrate listening, speaking, language arts, math, science, and technology skills. We have the time to offer these kinds of units now that the states no longer require high-stakes standardized testing for every student every year. No need to spend valuable instructional time on test preparation and administration. (Furthermore, by changing how we handle standardized testing, we are able to fund more intervention specialists who work in our classrooms and "in the moment" with students.)

My students go home and I take stock of my day. After my hour prep period, I spent 60 percent instructing students, 25 percent collaborating with colleagues, and 15 percent for recess prep time/lunch collaboration. This is a vast improvement from when I started teaching (without a mentor)—85 percent teaching time, 10 percent collaborative time (during lunch with a generous veteran teacher), and 5 percent preparation time.

The alarm clock rings. Back to 2012? I look in the mirror—I've still got it.

Although we may not be there yet, I feel heartened by my dream of how time can be used more efficiently and effectively in the future. I feel energized to go out and make it happen.

Dedy Fauntleroy is an ELL instructional coach in Seattle Public Schools.

June 21, 2012

The Value of Five Minutes for a Teacher

Jessica Keigan

I recently had the extreme privilege of hearing Michelle Shearer, the 2011 National Teacher of the Year. Of the many great ideas she shared, one of her classroom strategies particularly stood out.

At the start of her school year, she asks students to describe the value of five minutes. Her intention is to help high school students see the value in every minute of their education, which led me to wonder how this activity might benefit other stakeholders in the system.

What would be the value of five extra minutes in an educator's schedule? If any of you teachers are like me, five unplanned minutes in a day are a gift. These five minutes might be spent learning about a new professional strategy, catching up on local and national policy or interacting with peers in virtual or real time venues. Unfortunately, these are more often stolen moments rather than intentional investments of time on the part of the system.

Typically, at least a fourth of a teacher's day is taken up with extra duties and administrative tasks. While these are often necessary for the success of her job, there has to be a more efficient way to cope with these kinds of tasks so that more time is secured for collaboration, professional reading, or other growth promoting activities.

Unfortunately, reformers who are looking at expanded time models are often met with skepticism when sharing their ideas with educators. Quite frankly, it is because we don't just need more time in the educational system, we need a paradigm shift in how time is used. We not only need more time—we need better time.

There are models that achieve this goal. The Generation Schools Model being implemented in Brooklyn and Denver expands the school day and calendar in creative ways to allow for deeper learning for students and more intentional professional time for staff.

Similarly, the teacherpreneur model of hybrid teacher leadership introduced in Teaching 2030 is now being utilized in districts across the country. In this redesign of teacher leadership, teacherpreneurs are released from half of their schedule to practice leadership in a variety of initiatives and arenas, thereby spreading professional learning and opportunity to their peers and their system.

So what is the value of five minutes in an educator's day? The simple answer is that any time dedicated to the education of the students in this country is invaluable. As such, we need to ensure that all time is spent in ways that foster growth for all stakeholders.

As a teacherpreneur, Jessica divides her time evenly between teaching English at Horizon High School in Denver and supporting results-oriented efforts to improve Colorado's schools.

June 20, 2012

Increase Student Achievement With a Longer School Year

Brooke Peters

I once worked at a school in Los Angeles that was 99 percent low-income and ELL. Due to overcrowding in the district, the school developed a system with two eight-week breaks instead of a typical schedule. I witnessed first hand the amount of academic progress that is lost when students spend time out of school. My students, like many low-income children, did not have access to meaningful academic and enrichment experiences during break, which drastically affected their academic progress. Moreover, I believe in extending the school year and limiting the time students spend out of school.

Education reformers created the summer break in the 1840's to equalize the learning time in urban and rural schools, alleviate medical concerns, and ensure that students were not over-stimulated. With labor law reform and contemporary developments in technology, medicine, and agriculture, this once reasonable justification is now outdated. A decision made in large part to promote educational equality has now created an achievement gap between those who have access to academic and enrichment summer activities and those who do not.

Significantly shortening summer vacation would have a variety of upsides. First, all students would receive year-round learning experiences to support their social and academic growth. Second, there would be less pressure on teachers because students would maintain progress, and there would be more time to reach benchmarks. Third, schools would have added flexibility with scheduling. The extra time would allow for increased courses offered in the arts and physical education and leave considerably more time for professional development. Additionally, teachers could extend curriculum, provide increased individual support, and devote more time to units of study or concepts when needed.

This plan would certainly affect teacher recruitment and retention, be expensive, and anger a subset of parents. To make this work, education leaders would have to offer creative incentives and develop systems to support a longer school year. Overall, the potential for added curricular flexibility and higher achievement would increase job satisfaction. Additionally, if schools used the extra time to provide engaging academic and enrichment programming, many parents would support the idea. Charter schools across the country have already found success in extending the school year, particularly for students who struggle academically.

Ultimately, long summer vacation is costly for students who lack access to high-quality summer experiences. There are a variety of ways to creatively extend the school year and successfully adjust vacation times based on local context. It's truly painful for me to think about the lost progress students incur during the summer months. While I would certainly miss my summer break, I truly believe that the costs of the current system contradict the goal of teaching itself.

Brooke Peters has taught kindergarten and 1st grade in Los Angeles and New York City for 10 years, currently at Community Roots Charter School. 

June 20, 2012

Time Should Be On Our Side

Mark Sass

In 1906, the Carnegie Foundation coerced college professors into using the Carnegie Unit to measure educational attainment. How did the Foundation do this? They promised the professors that if their universities used the unit they would receive pensions, now known as TIA-CREF. Today the Carnegie Unit is still used as the unit of exchange between schools, as well as between high schools and colleges.

The Carnegie Unit, or "seat time," as it is better known, is based on three hours of class time for 16 weeks. Schools establish yearly calendars and daily bell schedules based on the Carnegie Unit. High school is all about seat time, because students receive credits based on how long they are in a class. The premise is, more seat time equals more credits—and, therefore, more credits equals more learning. But we know that this isn't the case. Universities know this because they require that prospective students take the ACT or SAT, not only to rank and sort students, but to also check for student learning.

The Carnegie Unit represents the amount of time that a student spends under the direct or indirect supervision of a teacher. In other words, it is an investment of teacher time and not of student learning. Time does not equate to learning any more than time in radiation therapy equates to eradicating cancer in a patient.

Because of the antiquated use of the Carnegie Unit, time has been used as a fixed variable in student achievement. Some students attain the necessary skills and content quicker than others, some slower. This results in students failing classes and increasing their risk of dropping out of school, or it results in those students who "get it" quickly becoming bored in class and acting out behaviorally. What if we moved to a competency-based approach to student learning? What if the unit of exchange between schools and post-secondary institutions became based on mastery and not seat time?

Time in schools should be used as the basis by which we make decisions on what students need. Some students may need to move on to the next level quicker than others; some students may need to spend more time in a class before moving on. Time should be a fluid variable, which we apply based on student needs.

Another impact of the Carnegie Unit is how it relates to the teacher. The Carnegie Unit does not give us any indication as to the effectiveness of the teacher. Before the No Child Left Behind legislation, expectations for all students were guided by the fixed amount of time that students spent in class. The role of the teacher was to rank and sort students, regardless of their competencies. We were guaranteed the same results every year. Time was the fixed variable by which students were sorted. After NCLB, the expectation was that all students would reach competency. Time no longer is the fixed variable; mastery is.

The Carnegie Unit is a relic of the past, an artifact that stands in stark contrast to the role and purpose of public education today. It's time to take on the Carnegie Unit as the means by which we measure society's investment in education.

Mark Sass has been teaching high school social sciences for 16 years, for the past 12 years at Legacy High School in Broomfield, Colo. 

June 19, 2012

Extend Summer and Real-World Enrichment

Paul Barnwell

May 30th was the last day for students at Fern Creek Traditional High School. For most of our students, work, play, and sedentary screen time will fill the gap until we resume classes on August 21st. Few will read, and even fewer will have the opportunities to participate in summer enrichment activities such as visiting museums or attending camps.

Since summer has begun, it's time to address what is a major issue with our current schooling model: Many kids regress academically during the coming months. According to the National Summer Learning Association, the summer months are related to persistent achievement gaps, and during this period parents have trouble finding productive things for their kids to do. Time off from school may also relate to the growing obesity problem with our youth.

That said, I do not propose a traditional school calendar year-round. I've heard about models where schools are nine weeks on, two weeks off year-round, with traditional holiday breaks still in tact. This model will not serve the purpose for what I propose.

Instead, why not slightly extend the summer, and enlist and train teachers and other community members to lead two two-week enrichment sessions over the course of a 14-week summer. Students must sign up for two of the sessions. Let teachers work with small groups of students, pursuing their own passions while giving the kids a chance to experience something new or authentic. Let teachers and students embark on project-based and real-world application of learning without all of the red tape. Anything but the ordinary school day of sit, move to the next class, repeat over and over, and hop on the bus to return home.

With a school year that begins after Labor Day and ends after 160 traditional school days, teachers will not be working more calendar days with this model. Plus, the benefit for students could be immense.

I recently had the privilege to lead a youth media workshop the week after school let out, collaborating with local professionals. We coached six sophomore students who volunteered to come back to school. We partnered them up, matched them with a coach, and set off to tell photo stories about places in Louisville, such as the Belle of Louisville (the oldest operating steamboat in the country) and a glass-blowing studio. When the week ended, students borrowed cameras and asked me when they could do it again. This type of intensely focused, exciting work sparked something. One parent commented that she had never seen her daughter so excited about school, which is ironic. It wasn't school as we know it, but we used the physical space of room 137 as a home base.

Tell me what has a better chance of exciting kids about an idea, activity, and learning in general: 20 days of what we currently have, or a pumped-up summer elective schedule with teachers doing what they love and kids signing up to be a part of it?

Paul Barnwell teaches English and digital media at Fern Creek Traditional High School in Louisville, Ky.

June 19, 2012

Teaching 24/7

Shannon C'de Baca

I walked into the high school I attended in the mid-1960's and was comforted by some of the changes I saw in terms of flexible room arrangements and technology. Then a bell rang and I was back in the 1960's. The students still move from teacher to teacher six to seven times each day. We have made many changes, but we have not altered the most powerful variable in the equation: time.

I teach online—and have seen how time can be used differently. Can ... and must. I have nine students who work more than 40 hours a week on a family farm, eight that handle a significant share of the child care for their working parent(s), six who work two jobs, and many students who have added my class to an already packed daily schedule. I can not teach from 9am to 4pm and meet the needs of all of these kids.

In my classes we negotiate my day to day schedule. The content is always available and my direct instruction is used much more strategically. Students have a regular video meeting with me twice weekly often on Skype. I can usually gather them into three or four working groups and those who miss a meeting catch up using the archived video or email. Here I handle all the questions relating to instruction and some of the labs. We always have three or four asynchronous discussions going. Administrative information (announcements, grades, updates, deadlines and schedules) is posted and available 24/7.

I teach chemistry and I can tell you that deep abstract knowledge requires some think time. Students need to see a concept several times via a variety of lessons and contexts. My goal for my students has always been mastery, and sometimes it takes students more than a day or even a week to reach deep understanding. But some time ago, our assessments began prioritizing coverage. Coverage involves a rigid schedule. Mastery requires more flexible use of time.

Lots of blended classrooms are using time more like online instructors. I think that in the future, face-to-face teacher interaction may be considered more carefully: What is the best use of this time? What groupings, what schedule, how many kids, what kinds of virtual space? All those variables come into play ... but "school time" must span 24 hours, seven days a week.

Changing the schedule in my online classes meant more instructional time for my students. When my students see time as a commodity and a variable, they spend more time with content. My students log on for about five hours of synchronous time each week and put in another 12 to 15 hours on evenings, weekends, and holidays. When we give teachers and/or schools permission to control time, we make better use of it.

Shannon C'de Baca has been a science teacher for the last 34 years. She currently teaches a blended online chemistry course.

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