The Lessons of More Math Time in Miami

A few weeks ago, a graduate student at Stanford Graduate School of Education, Eric Taylor, published a study of a program in Miami that had expanded time in mathematics for a select group of sixth graders. (The extra time came in the form of a required second math class). Following in a long line of research that indicates that more time spent learning yields a higher degree of learning, Mr. Taylor’s research also found a large positive effect of this extra time devoted to math. Specifically, math achievement grew among students with this extra class by 0.16–0.18 standard deviations faster than peers with only one math class.

But this is not the piece of the research that has gotten the most attention. Rather, it is the second half of his evaluation, which demonstrated that these students began to lose ground in their math proficiency once they went on to seventh and eighth grades and lost their extra daily math class. Within the more conventional school schedule, the group of students essentially reverted back to their level of performance before they had access to the additional math time. The results of this experiment have left some to conclude that expanding time is, thus, a questionable public policy because its effects are short-lived. 

In all honesty, I find this reaction somewhat puzzling (and even a little frustrating) on two levels. First, as a matter of pure logic, I think this research strongly bolsters the case for more time, rather than undermines it, since it clearly shows that having more time in math can accelerate learning. The loss in learning gains came only when that resource was taken away.

Consider an analogous situation from the world of medicine. If a doctor had a sick patient and found that a particular drug helped to heal her, and then stopped administering that drug, only to find that the patient regressed, would the response of the doctor be to conclude that the drug shouldn’t have been given in the first place if its absence would only lead to the patient’s decline?  Of course not. The response would be to continue the drug. Likewise, this study of the Miami students offers pretty convincing proof that more learning time achieves its objectives of promoting more learning. Regression with its removal is further proof of its positive effects.

Yet, it is the second aspect of this skepticism that, to me, is a bit more troubling. To suggest that a group of sixth graders that demonstrated a particular proficiency in math at one moment means their proficiency is fixed at a certain baseline as they progress to more complex mathematical concepts seems, to me, too simplistic. Human beings are not computers. We are not simply processors of inputs. Rather, learning is a complicated, multifaceted process that involves the gradual and even erratic accrual of knowledge and skills. Of course, knowledge builds on itself, but this does not mean that if we achieve a certain level of knowledge at one particular time—which, of course, is what results on a test show—that this level remains constant. Instead, our minds are much more fluid. Our specific proficiencies fluctuate, as we integrate new understandings, novel perspectives, and previously unknown facts into our knowledge base.

Therefore, when these students moved to higher levels of math, but had less time to process, to internalize the more challenging topics to which they were being exposed, it is not surprising that their relative level of learning declined. If anything, they probably needed more time as they progressed up the ladder of mathematical complexity, not less.

By the way, it is worth noting that the author of the study notes in his conclusion that one of his concerns about giving extra time for math is that it takes away from time spent in other subjects. In an environment that is expecting students to be proficient in multiple areas, such a concern is entirely legitimate. And this is one of the many reasons why we at NCTL advocate for more school time overall – so that schools will not have to make these difficult choices trying to prioritize one subject over another. With a substantially longer day and year, schools are able to devote sufficient time to all core academic subjects and, in the process, find that their students reap the accruing benefits of more learning opportunities.