What More Time Really Adds

When debating the value of more school time, it is not uncommon to hear the argument that more time will not guarantee higher student proficiency and that what ultimately matters is the quality of instruction, not the quantity of time in school. To which I say, “Exactly!” If practitioners in any school expand their schedule thinking that they can coast to better student outcomes, they are deceiving themselves. As with everything else in life, quality matters and, in turn, quality does not come easy.

And, yet, it was not until I wrote the study on the school improvement efforts of three districts that I understood that an effort to add school time is not destined to succeed or fail based upon the current instructional practices of individual teachers and those in use throughout the school. Instructional quality is not static. Instead, expanding time in schools can (and should) be harnessed to lead to a fundamental shift in instructional practices that will then, in turn, lead to higher student achievement. Moreover, without that additional time, the practices that may, in fact, be responsible for subpar performance in the first place would be more likely to remain unchanged.

Of course, our study called Time Well Spent, details the pivotal role of time in enabling or accelerating eight specific practices, but, today, I want to focus on just two. As I detailed in the study of Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Volusia County, there are two particular additions to the schedule—additions that are much less likely to take root in the space of a standard school day—that confer potentially powerful changes on the capacity of a school to boost student achievement.

The first of these additions is the daily (or near daily) 30- to 45-minute period when all students participate in a period of highly individualized instruction that is designed to help students overcome particular deficits or explore new approaches. As I explained, there are three immediate and mid-term benefits, each of which ultimately raises the quality of instruction. These benefits are:

1.       Classroom teachers become more methodically focused on meeting individual student learning needs.

2.       Instruction in core academic classes can be accelerated when teachers do not have to stop to explain more basic skills or knowledge. These can be addressed in the support sessions and then almost all students will then be able to handle more rigorous instruction of their regular classes more consistently.

3.       Because the sessions rely on having all teachers (and other staff) in the building as instructors (i.e., the small class size necessitates having more instructors than are available for regular classrooms) and students are assigned to instructors other than their regular classroom teachers, a much broader coalition of adults becomes jointly responsible for the academic growth of individual students.

The last point proves especially potent for it can often bestow a “cultural shift” in the school that encourages all teachers to work together to raise student achievement. They become accountable to each other to raise expectations and improve outcomes.

The second added component to the school day is related to this idea of forming a whole-school team approach to improvement. This element is dedicated time for teacher collaboration. According to the National Staff Development Council the building of teacher capacity to improve instruction relies on structuring opportunities when teachers convene so that they may work on instructional improvements collaboratively.  As a leading scholar of professional learning communities, Richard DuFour, explains “For teachers to participate in such a powerful process, the school must ensure that everyone belongs to a team that focuses on student learning. Each team must have time to meet during the workday and throughout the school year.”  (NCTL has a cool video of the impact of this collaboration time, if you want to get a visual picture of how it works.)

What I found is that in schools that added time overall, this teacher collaboration time then became a regular feature of teachers’ school week. Before the extra time in the school schedule, these sessions existed much more sporadically.

I guess what I’m saying is that the claim that more time is just about the monotonous extension of certain classes and doing more of the same rings false to me. It is really about providing more opportunity to spend time differently—a large part of which entails building in elements to the school day and year that act to improve instructional quality. In this way, more quantity can beget higher quality. For those who claim that adding time to a low-performing school is like paying more money to heat an already drafty building, they are forgetting that the additional money can also be spent to renovate the building to make it more efficient. So, too, more school time not only can give students more time with their teachers, they can make the teaching they get much better.