On Jan. 31, questions addressed the topic of time and learning, specifically the recommendations of a national panel financed by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Time, Learning, and Afterschool Task Force, whose report was released in January.
Guest panelists were Patrick Hould, the principal of Lewistown Junior High School in Lewistown, Mont., and a member of the task force; Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based group Education Sector; and Jennifer Davis, the president and co-founder of Massachusetts 2020, a nonprofit organization working to expand learning opportunities for urban children in Massachusetts. Below are excerpts from the discussion.
Question: Research shows that when young people have opportunities for “voice and choice,” they are more likely to participate in, be engaged in, and benefit from learning opportunities, both inside and outside of school. This is of particular importance for adolescents. How can efforts to restructure time and learning respect young people’s opinions and ensure that they are engaged?
Davis: You are right. In the expanded-time schools in Massachusetts, we are hearing reports from teachers that students are more engaged in their education specifically because they are choosing the enrichment activities they want to participate in. To be sure, they are all taking math and science, but they now have the opportunity to decide whether they will take a robotics course or learn a new instrument. Certainly, when students feel they can take ownership of their education, they are that much more likely to be motivated to achieve at high levels.
Question: There has been much dispute over the use of the block schedule. Is it better for students to learn a little every day on each subject, or to have more time, 80 to 90 minutes, every other day?
Silva: The success of block scheduling is dependent on the teachers. Research shows a lot of promise when teachers are prepared to teach this type of schedule. But there is also ample evidence that most block formats will not work if teachers are only accustomed to and trained for traditional classes of, say, 50 minutes. These teachers tend to prepare instruction for a 50-minute class and then turn to supplemental or review materials for the remainder of a block-schedule time period. The purpose of the block—to increase the amount of focused and engaged instructional time—is undermined by this. A longer period provides the opportunity for more learning, but only if the teachers know how to use this time for academic instruction.
Curricular and testing alignment are also considerations, as some block schedules offer certain subjects during one semester and others during another semester. Obviously, if a science assessment is scheduled for June, having science only in the fall semester would not be the best idea.
Question: The trend in professional development is for a school’s teacher teams to collaborate during the school day to learn whatever is necessary to increase student achievement. To what extent do the task force’s recommendations favor creating additional time for this purpose?
Hould: This answer is simple: “Do whatever it takes.” Do whatever it takes to prepare teachers in time-tested practices that best serve our young people. The task force acknowledges that there is no cookie-cutter or cookbook model for a new day for learning. Creating additional time for staff development is important, and must work within the context of district practices and expectations. I really liked what Rhonda Lauer said during the press conference at which the report was released: “Professional development needs to be seamless as a new day for learning. There needs to be joint professional development across communities.”
Question: In efforts to rethink time and learning, what are the pros and cons of approaches to reduce the amount of time students take off over the summer? My understanding is that “summer loss” is well established, and that a readjustment of the school calendar would do more to help students than modest attempts to extend the formal school day by a few minutes, or the school year by a few days.
Davis: This is an important question. It is true that there is well-established research that shows a loss of learning during the summer, especially among children from low-income families. Spreading the calendar more evenly across the year may very well help combat this loss, though it is more logistically challenging than extending the school day. What is most exciting about the expanded-learning-time program in Massachusetts is that the added time is anything but modest. The state required participating schools to expand their schedule by 30 percent—the equivalent of about two hours more per day, or 45 more days per year. (Because of the logistical challenges, most of the schools expanded the day only and kept the year the same length.) This substantial addition of time has enabled schools to entirely redesign their educational programs, significantly expanding time on task in core academics, enrichment activities, and individualized instruction.
Question: In the elementary school, time drips away in all the extras like fundraising, holiday celebrations, and so on. At the high school level, it’s sports that really eats into the school day, with players leaving early and disrupting classes and pep rallies. There is a culture in schools and communities that academic learning is a small part of what schools are about. How do we change that culture so that we see schools as sacred places where learning is at the core, rather than as community centers where wrapping-paper sales compete with math instruction, and where parents demand to have their children’s parties?
Hould: This is a great question. To me, the answer rests in the word you used: culture. What a school values is what is recognized. This can be seen in daily habits, procedures, and policies. Principals must lead the charge to better structure learning opportunities, to demonstrate learning as a top priority, not by what they say, but by what they practice. That having been said, as a principal I fully understand the challenges of the social aspects of the school environment, and how vital these can be to the development of our young people. I realize the need for there to be a mix of the two, but academics and student learning must be at the forefront.
Question: Knowing what we know about the adolescent brain and the times of day when the brain is ready to learn, why are we still scheduling schools days as if no research on this existed?
Silva: Scheduling logistics (namely bus schedules) play a role, as do the work and family obligations of many adolescent students. Participation in athletics—with perceived higher stakes at the high school level—also keeps the teenage school schedule starting early and ending with time for practice. But, while some of these are practical reasons, your point is a good one. There is research to suggest that teenagers’ sleep patterns are in conflict with the early start times of high schools. I’d be interested in any large-scale surveys on what students themselves think. I worked in a school in Oakland, Calif., in the 1990s that surveyed its students on this question, and the students said they wouldn’t give up early dismissal for later start times.
Question: What are the report’s recommendations you would most like other principals to know and act upon?
Hould: First, we must help prepare young people to be responsible citizens. The notion of the schoolhouse needs to be flexible, as students explore ways to engage with the human and other resources within the greater community. Service-learning is an example of a viable method of providing opportunities for this engagement, tapping outside resources, and creating a flexible school environment.
Second, the report highlights the significance of workplace- and college-readiness skills, such as problem-solving, reliability, and teamwork. Schools must stand ready to prepare young people for a future in which these skills will be key to success.
Finally, schools must, as the report says, “build new collaborative structures across sectors in communities and up and down government hierarchies that focus all resources on supporting academic and developmental goals for children.” Principals can and should be models of the types of partnerships needed for all children to be able to feel success.
Read more from our Chat Transcripts.
A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: Time and Learning