Suppose you find that your bucket leaks. Does that mean you need a bigger bucket? Not necessarily; you may just need one that doesn’t leak. With the best of intentions, President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are renewing the call for a longer school day and year—for a larger bucket. I believe this is premature.
Like most “structural” (vs. substantive) reforms, this one will consume our time and political energy, even as it postpones our encounter with a more vital, less costly opportunity: making good use the huge number of hours that currently “hide” within the conventional school day and year. If we recovered this time and properly redirected it, the impact on student learning would be greater than any reform ever launched.
There are, in fact, two to three months of learning time waiting to be recaptured within the existing school year. And though our communities and school boards might be surprised to hear it, a majority of educators are aware of this.
In the last few years, I have asked several hundred audiences of teachers, administrators, and union representatives the following question: Would you agree that almost all “worksheets” are a lamentable and unnecessary use of instructional time? More than 90 percent of them agree unreservedly, by show of hands. Then I ask them to pair up and discuss what proportion of the school day or year students spend filling in such worksheets. After some give and take, the average response I get is a minimum of 25 percent to 30 percent—the equivalent of an entire grading period. More than two months.
I then say, “Gee … and I haven’t even mentioned movies.” This invariably provokes honest, almost relieved laughter. In the right setting, educators are refreshingly frank—and concerned—about the actual curriculum, which is starkly different from what the public (and many policymakers) imagine. Teachers and administrators know that the actual taught curriculum is rife with time-killing routines, worksheets, and often full-length films that add little or no value to the school day. Most interesting perhaps is that once educators have a chance to add it all up, they see that changes would add about 30 percent more learning time annually for almost every school in America. And it would cost us nothing.
We’ve known for decades that large chunks of class time are spent on ill-conceived group activities, on settling in or packing up at the beginning and end of class. Moreover, there has been an alarming increase, at all grade levels and in all subjects, of what the reading expert Lucy McCormick Calkins refers to as classroom “arts and crafts.”
Recent studies confirm that this provides an especially ripe opportunity for recovering lost time. In their study, researchers Michael P. Ford and Michael F. Opitz found that in the critical early grades, about two-thirds of the typical “reading” or “language arts” period was spent on “cut, color, and paste activities.” Effective teachers eschew such activities (except, of course, in art classes, where they belong).
Many parents suspect that some of this goes on in schools, but they hope against hope that it is rare or occurs only in low-scoring or inner-city schools. Would that this were so. I recently found these activities to be as, or more, prevalent in schools with their state’s highest academic designation. The fact is, students in most schools spend days at a time in academic classes on questionable group “projects,” on drawing and painting, making banners, castles, book jackets, collages, and mobiles. All of this is in addition to worksheets and movies.
Throughout decades of reform, we’ve never honestly confronted these actualities, or the more disturbing fact that such misguided activities supplant what experts such as the Center for Educational Policy Research director David T. Conley tell us are severely restricted in K-12 education: analytical reading, writing, and discussion in all of the disciplines. These are vital to students’ intellectual development and have been found to be the most critical factors for success in college and the modern workplace.
With a new administration and secretary of education in Washington, this would be an excellent time to honestly, and at long last, come to terms with how time is spent in schools. Then we would be in a better position to decide how much time and energy we should expend in fighting for longer school days and shorter summers.
A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week