Saturday, November 10, 2007

More Time Isn't Always Better

Report: Longer Class Time Doesn’t Guarantee Results

By HAL YOUNG - Contributing Editor

RALEIGH -- In a move to add instructional time to the school day, a high school in Bergen County, N.J., recently scheduled nearly 1,000 students to share a single lunch period in a cafeteria built for 300. News reports showing students eating lunch on the cafeteria floor — and a microbiologist’s analysis of the cleanliness of the floor — brought about a change in seating accommodations, but not the schedule.

It might be logical that extending the number of classroom hours allows teachers to present more comprehensive lessons and deepen the learning experience. Many students in other states and overseas spend more time in class than North Carolina’s, and Howard Lee, chairman of the State Board of Education, supports not only longer school days but also longer school years.

However, research suggests that might not be the right move. A report by the John Locke Foundation’s Terry Stoops outlines proof that simply adding hours to the day doesn’t increase academic performance. Some nations with higher test scores actually spend fewer days in the classroom, a concept actually supported by Department of Public Instruction’s own internal
guidebooks, Stoops wrote.

Stoops’ report, “Better Instruction, Not More Time,” says that when student results on international tests are compared, the nations with the highest average scores are not always the ones with the greatest number of classroom hours.

In mathematics, for example, students in the United States average 169 instructional hours per year. In a study of 39 countries by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the nation with the highest math scores, China, spent 177 hours per year in math class, only 4.7 percent more than in the United States, but scored nearly 14 percent higher on the exam. On the other hand, the Netherlands, No. 4 on the list, spent 110 hours on math instruction each year, but scored more than 11 percent higher.

The United States ranked 27th out of 39 countries. U.S. students spent the equivalent of four weeks more than the global average time in math class, but ranked only barely ahead of the lowest fourth.

“Overall, there was no consistent relationship between in-school instructional time in mathematics and the countries’ average score,” Stoops wrote. “In fact, there is a slight decrease in math performance as instructional time increases.”

A study published by Pennsylvania State University found similar results in science, reading, and civics instruction. The researchers recommended that as long as scores were within international norms, “Do not waste resources in marginal increases in instructional time … If there is a choice between using resources to increase time versus improving teaching and the curriculum, give priority to the latter.”

Publications from the Department of Public Instruction acknowledge the need to focus on instructional quality over simple questions of seat time. DPI’s guide for implementing the Standard Course of Study, a pair of documents titled, The Balanced Curriculum, cautions, “extending the school day won’t necessarily help teachers deliver a balanced curriculum. Research has shown that it is how time is used verses [sic] the amount of time that students are in school that makes a difference.”

“It is important not to confuse time spent in school with learning,” the guide says. “Learning is complex and affected by a variety of factors. No notable research exists suggesting that extending time in school results in a direct increase in student learning.”

Stoops acknowledged that some successful schools do have a longer instructional day, such as those based on the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). However, he said, the difference is what they do with the time.

“KIPP’s success has much more to do with their high-quality instruction and superior school climate than with the length of their school day. KIPP schools are able to fill their longer school day with highly effective instruction, whereas most public schools do not,” he said.

Programs such as KIPP demonstrate that “an extended school day and year may be well suited for students who could benefit from high-quality supplemental instruction,” Stoops wrote, but longer time “is not the panacea that advocates make it out to be.” Instead of imposing a blanket solution across the state’s entire school system, he recommends making longer, or shorter, school days available at different schools, and giving parents the option to place their children where the time would best be spent.

“Otherwise,” he said, “the measure becomes one in a long list of one-size-fits-all reforms that invariably fail to deliver on the promise of increasing student achievement.”

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