A new national study that probes the perennial question “What did you do at school today?” turns up some surprising inequities in how students spend their time.
Published last week in the journal Teachers College Record, the groundbreaking study is based on a nationally representative sample of 553 students in 1st through 5th grades. Unlike other studies that have tracked how time is spent in school, this one kept close tabs on what students were up to through the use of time diaries kept by teachers throughout the day.
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African-Amercan pupils spend more time on academics than white students do, the researchers found, and they tend to get less time to play, to study music and art, and to take part in physical education classes or other types of enrichment activities.
White students have more time for those activities, the study found, because they have smaller classes and a longer school day—in some cases, as much as an hour longer.
“Our data illustrate the racial and economic inequality in America’s schools: Poorer minority children do not have the same opportunities as richer white students,” concludes the research team, which was made up of investigators from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City and from the University of Maryland in College Park.
Having time to draw, sing, and run around is valuable, the researchers said, because studies show that important learning occurs during nonacademic time, too, and because the black students they tracked often did not get those opportunities after school.
“There is more to learning than the basics, especially for the workplace of the future, and some kids may find their calling in art and music and physical education,” said Jodie L. Roth, the lead researcher on the study. She is a research scientist at the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College.
The other authors are Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Miriam Linver, both from Teachers College, and Sandra Hofferth from the University of Maryland.
The news could be worse, however, noted Meredith Phillips, a researcher from the University of California, Los Angeles, who has extensively studied test-score differences between white and black students.
“I would be more concerned if teachers were spending less academic time with black students than they were with white students,” she said.
The data on the students came from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a federally financed data-collection effort that began tracking families in 1968. The time diaries were part of a supplement added to the study in 1997; the data on students’ time use comes from that year. Ten percent of the schools included were private schools.
The school day ranges in length from six to seven hours and typically lasts 61/2 hours, the study found. Even though students with six-hour school days tend to have a longer school year, they still end up spending 14 percent less time in school than students on seven-hour-day schedules, it found.
Students with longer school days, the researchers found, were significantly more likely to be white, to have fewer special needs, and have smaller classes with high percentages of other white students in them.
Regardless of how long their school days are, however, most students are spending most of their time on academics, according to the report. However, African-Americans pupils clock an average of 17 more minutes on such studies than do white students.
On the other hand, they spend 10 minutes more than their white counterparts do on what the researchers call “maintenance activities"—such as unpacking book bags, taking bathroom breaks, and eating lunch.
The additional time that white students spend on nonacademic pursuits each day averages 10 minutes for recess and 17 minutes for enrichment activities. According to the study, 15 percent of white students and 40 percent of the African-American students got no recess at all on the day the time logs were recorded.
The data gave researchers no clues, however, on why time was allocated so differently from school to school.
Educators and policymakers in recent years have expressed much concern about black and Hispanic students lagging behind whites and Asians on standardized-test scores.
But Ms. Roth said she was unsure whether the discrepancies she found were a result or a cause of that “achievement gap"—or, alternatively, a product of the overall national press to boost American students’ test scores.
“People assume that spending more time on task will lead to higher achievement,” she said.
Researchers also could not explain why white students tended to have longer school days. “One guess is that longer school days cost more money, so it just might be that only wealthier districts that have more resources or can pass more millages can support them,” said Ms. Roth.
Ms. Roth said she hopes to continue to track the students in the study sample to find out how they fared later on in school and whether the way they spent their time during their elementary years made a difference.