Poverty Takes Toll on Instructional Time in High Schools

By Erik W. Robelen — April 07, 2014 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

By guest blogger Holly Yettick. Cross-posted from Inside School Research.


Poverty-related challenges steal time from high school class periods, leading students at low-income schools to receive an average of half an hour less instruction per day than their higher-income peers.

These preliminary results were drawn from a study presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association here. The study, based on a 2013 survey of a representative of sample of 783 teachers from 193 California charter and traditional public schools, was led by Nicole Mirra and conducted with assistance from the Ford Foundation. (The Ford Foundation underwrites coverage of more and better learning time in Education Week.)

“We often think time is a common factor across all schools, we’re all starting with the same amount of sand in the hour glass,” said Mirra, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California Los Angeles’s graduate school of education.

But Mirra and her co-authors found that that this was simply not the case.

Disruptions such as welcoming new students to the classrooms, and locking down the school during emergencies and drills, eat away at more instructional time at high-poverty schools than in lower-poverty schools. So, too, do routines, such as transitioning students from the hallways to the class period. First period is a particular challenge in high-poverty schools.

“The large delay in first period start time may be related to the lack of steady and reliable public transportation in many high-poverty communities,” the authors wrote in a draft paper about their findings.

Mirra and her co-authors noted that these interruptions mattered because past research has found that additional (high-quality) instructional time gives teachers more opportunities to cover material, examine topics in depth, provide individualized support and answer students’ questions.

Low-poverty high schools also lose instructional time to disruptions. Teachers at the lowest poverty high schools—with free -and- reduced-price meal rates of less than 26 percent—estimated that they lost an average of 12 minutes per class period of instructional time. However, these losses were about 60 percent lower than the losses at the highest-poverty schools, those with free and reduced-price lunch rates of more than 77 percent.

Teachers at high-poverty schools were significantly more likely to report that they experienced chronic loss of instructional time because their classrooms were noisy or needed to be cleaned and because they did not have enough qualified subtitute teachers, computers or access to the school library.

“This is not narrowly an issue of teachers and students at an individual level,” Mirra said. “This is about high-poverty schools lacking the resources to respond to broader social conditions.”

In addition to losing more instructional time per class period, high-poverty schools also lost more days or blocks of days per year. Teacher absences and testing days, which tend to occur at higher rates in high-poverty schools, were the biggest time sucks, totaling 16 lost days per year. By contrast, schools with poverty rates lower than 26 percent lost 10 days per year to these two disruptions.

Teachers in high-poverty schools also reported spending more time on important but non-instructional tasks such as connecting students to health-care providers, talking to them about future plans, and discussing problems in their lives.

Warren Simmons, the executive director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, was charged with summing up the research presented in Sunday’s session. He said that social and economic challenges were not the only reasons why students at high-poverty schools ended up with less instructional time: Another reason was that high-poverty schools are also more likely to experience one time-consuming educational intervention after another as philanthropies and governments try and then discard what can seem like an endless chain of improvement approaches.

“Compare that to schools that are lower in poverty and the comparative peace they experience over decades,” he said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.