School & District Management

There Are Smart Ways to Use Time to Aid Learning. Why Do So Many Schools Ignore Them?

By Alyson Klein — February 25, 2020 11 min read
Fifth graders, from left, Lenorah Hunt, Brooke Clark, and William Shortt, play during recess at Centerville Elementary School in Virginia Beach, Va.
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Schools are constantly fighting for more resources: money, effective teachers, facilities. But one pivotal factor in student learning and child development isn’t often on the negotiating table: Time.

The benefits of strategies like pushing back high school start times, hitting math and reading early in the day for elementary school students, and making sure students get a break to process their learning, have been documented in a deluge of research studies and championed by prominent organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But many schools aren’t putting that advice into action, an Education Week survey of school and district leaders conducted in December found. Less than half—41 percent—of those surveyed said their district had examined what brain science research says about learning and used that information to guide or inform scheduling or start times.

The problem—teachers, administrators, and experts say in interviews—is the system itself.

Changing start times means rearranging transportation, teacher schedules, extra-curricular activities, and sports, and getting community groups on board. Slotting academics to the best time of day for students of different strengths and different ages is an almost insurmountable logistical challenge.

Giving students a breather—or even recess—takes precious minutes away from mastering material that will be measured on standardized tests. And states often step in with mandates, dictating just how many hours of instruction students must receive, and in which subjects.

“Teachers and administrators have super hard jobs in a system that is often quite dysfunctional,” said Daniel Pink, the author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, who has been lecturing school groups on the best uses of time.

First-graders Kavin Prabu, left, and Vasu Selvakumar, select activities from the “recess kit” during a break at Centerville Elementary School in Virginia Beach, Va.

What’s more, many educators are too busy juggling their demanding day-to-day tasks to pour over academic studies, he added.

“I don’t think the research is that widely known,” Pink said. “Education changes slowly, but it often changes based on research.”

David Naylor, the principal of Model Laboratory Elementary School in Richmond, Ky., which is slated to try out a new schedule next year based in part on research highlighted in Pink’s book, added one more thing to the list: Fear.

“I think because of high-stakes testing and accountability, more and more people are afraid to step outside the box, because they’ll think, if it doesn’t work, what kind of impact will it have on my scores, how will it reflect on teachers, how will it reflect on the school and community?” Naylor said. “As we are trying to evolve our education system, we have to have the freedom to try something new without feeling like there’s going to be some adverse consequence to it.”

Start Times

One of the most powerful—but most difficult—changes for schools to make: starting high school later.

The majority of educators in the survey said their high schools started before 8:30 a.m, the earliest time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. In fact, just five percent of schools surveyed start between 8:31 and 9 a.m.

That’s despite the fact that the research—from medical professionals, educators, and academics—is crystal clear: Middle and high school students learn best when they get to school a bit later.

For instance: Pushing back the school start time one hour later for middle school students led to a three-point jump in reading and math scores for the average student, according to a study of data from all middle schoolers in Wake County, N.C., conducted by Finley Edwards, an assistant clinical professor of economics at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. What’s more, he found that the effect was magnified for the lowest-performing students.

By Edwards’ back-of-the envelope calculations, if a district decided to start all its students at the same time—say 9 a.m.—it would mean spending about an extra $150 per student a year.

“The overall balance tilts very strongly in favor of pushing school start times [later],” Edwards said. “The payoff that you get swamps so many other things.”

It isn’t just about increasing learning. Teenagers tend to have trouble falling asleep and get their most productive, so-called “dream sleep” in the early morning hours.

Waking up a teenager at 7 a.m. is like waking up an adult at 4 a.m.

“Waking up a teenager at 7 a.m. is like waking up an adult at 4 a.m.,” said Scott E. Carrell, a professor of economics at the University of California-Davis, who studied the impact of later start times at the Air Force Academy and found that earlier start times contributed to lower grades among students in early adulthood and late adolescence. “They are waking up when their body feels like they should be asleep.”

The lack of quality sleep takes a toll on teenagers, leading to traffic accidents, more frequent illness, and even depression and suicide, physicians say.

So what gets in the way of later start times? Educators who participated in Education Week’s survey cited busing schedules (60 percent), sports schedules (53 percent), and extra-curriculars (38 percent). Another third said student work and family obligations were a big hurdle. And more than a quarter pointed to parent resistance and teachers’ work and family obligations. Just under 15 percent said their schools lacked the resources to shift start times.

In the Westfield school district in western Massachusetts, high school starts at 7:20 a.m. and middle school starts at 8 a.m. And that would be a tough thing to change, said Paul Newton, the middle school’s principal.

“Here, the biggest issue to later start times is the transportation contracts; you only have so many buses to service each level,” he said. What’s more, even if his district decided to try out a later start time, others in the area might not follow suit, making athletic competitions difficult to schedule.

But some districts have found creative work-arounds. About eight years ago, the Teton County school district in Wyoming moved its start time to 8:55 a.m., with a departure time of 3:55 p.m. That indeed made life difficult for high school athletes, including the school’s ski team, which has to practice during daylight hours.

The solution? The district switched to a seven period rolling schedule, so that students have a different class first thing every day. That way, the skiers—and other athletes—were only missing a particular class once a week.

The benefits have been well worth it, said Gillian Chapman, the district’s superintendent.

The new school start time “doesn’t feel like it’s the middle of the night anymore,” for her teenage students. “The biggest barrier other districts have [to a similar shift] is that after-school sports schedule, clubs activities, work. We were struggling with that ‘til the rolling schedule.”

The push is finding its way—slowly—into state policy. The biggest legislative victory for advocates of a later school start time came last year in California, which now requires all middle and high schools to start at 8:30 a.m. or later. There’s an exception for rural schools. Other states have considered less dramatic steps, simply directing school districts to study start times, including Indiana, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

Don’t Mess With Recess

Another strong recommendation from the experts: Make sure students get time for a break, preferably outside. In other words: Don’t mess with recess. In fact, the CDC has recommended that all students—from kindergarten through grade 12—get at least 20 minutes of recess a day.

But that’s easier said than done. In the era of high-stakes testing, schools are still under intense pressure to wring every possible academic minute out of the day. Breaks and play can be seen as frivolous, educators say.

For instance, in the Red Creek Central school district in upstate New York, all students get a minimum of 20 minutes, but typically closer to 30 minutes. And no matter how poorly they behave, no child is told that they can’t have the break.

“Nobody sits out recess,” said Dennis Taylor, the principal of M.W. Cuyler Elementary School. But he wishes his students had a little more time for breaks. “I’d like it to be a little longer but our day hasn’t gotten any longer,” he said. Breaks may be vital to student success, said Robert Murray, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Nationwide Children’s Ohio State University College of Medicine, who investigated recess for the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2013.

For one thing, recess helps students learn better. The brain needs unstructured time to “encode” new information, Murray said.

“It’s penny wise and pound foolish to worry about cramming as much [learning] as you can,” into a particular time frame, he said. “If you don’t give the brain an opportunity to encode it, then the child hasn’t really learned it.”

Schools don’t have to offer formal recess in order for this to work—a quick break, like a walk around the school, could help, Murray said.

What’s more, recess is good for more than just academic achievement, Murray said.

Letting students sort out their disagreements on the four-square or tether ball court is actually great preparation for the workforce, Murray said.

“Recess and free play offer students one of the few opportunities during the school day for kids to interact with each other without adult interference. They make rules and they compromise and communicate with each other,” he said.

That will help years down the line. “If you think about your workmates, the ones you value the most are the ones with strong social and emotional skills. … All of those skills are front-brain skills that require practice to bring out and that’s one of the powerhouse things that recess does.”

Little kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from a breather. The 8- to 10-minute break older students get passing between classes is likely not enough for their brain to reset and get ready for new material, said Kevin Williams, an assistant professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. That’s especially true if students are going from one hard-core academic class to the next—say, from chemistry to algebra.

But Williams acknowledges adding more time for breaks between classes isn’t easy for most schools. “You can’t have an hour-long break after every class, or school would end at 7 p.m.,” he said.

Organizing the School Day

When it comes to academic subjects—like reading and math—the littlest learners are likely to do their best work first thing in the morning, said Mareikee Wieth, a professor at Albion College in Albion, Mich.

“Younger kids tend to have their optimal time of day more towards the morning,” Wieth said. “They are able to focus on what the teacher is saying as opposed to that lollypop that might be in their” cubby.

That’s why some schools have made it a priority to offer the most taxing academic classes first thing in the morning to their youngest students. For instance, for the past 17 years, K-2 students at Tillford Elementary School in Vinton, Iowa, have kicked off their day with a long literacy block. “That’s their best couple hours of the day,” said Jim Murray, the school’s principal.

Brycen Dixon, 8, and Aryanna Washington, 9, draw in art class at Centerville Elementary School.

But it’s just not possible to do that for all kids in elementary school, in part because intervention specialists who help children who are struggling in a particular subject can’t be available to everyone all at the same time.

Once children begin to hit puberty—around age 10—they are less likely to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as soon as they get to school. And by the time they reach high school, most students aren’t likely to get their best learning done in their first period class.

Starting school later is a good way to mitigate that problem, Williams said. But if that’s not possible, there’s another great option for older students: Starting the day with physical education or another class that’s not too taxing on the brain.

“P.E. is essentially as good as not having any classes,” he said. But he acknowledged, “You can’t give everyone P.E. in the morning, and there’s not enough art space for everyone to be in art at the same time.”

So Williams suggested another possible remedy: If teenagers must start the day early and they can’t all be in gym class, they should consider putting their best subject first. “Your schedule matters less if you are strong in a subject,” Williams said.

He acknowledged that this would be difficult advice for schools to follow. “It takes a school being able to confidently identify student strengths in their first year,” he said.

Nick Ouellette, the superintendent of the Hudson School District in western Wisconsin, said it’s just not practical to let high-schoolers decide—as college students do—what time they want to take the courses that are most likely to trip them up. That would throw a monkey wrench into the already complicated, Tetris-like task of figuring out which classes to offer when.

Kids don’t actually pick ‘I want physics first period,’ ” he said. “They just pick ‘I want physics.’ ” Their preferences then are considered as part of a broader system in which counselors try not to schedule, say Advanced Placement Calculus at the same time as AP Chemistry, since many of the same students want to take both courses.

“There are a lot of different variables, a lot of things competing,” Ouellette said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as Making Smarter Use of Time


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