Teaching Opinion

How Much Time for Learning? A Tour of the Archives

September 22, 2008 10 min read

Contributors to Education Week’s Commentary section needed little encouragement from the drafters of A Nation at Risk to contemplate the question of how best to deploy school time to improve student achievement. Variations on the theme of time and learning have been a staple for Commentary writers. Below is a sampling from our archives:

Research has shown consistently that the one constant in explaining how much students learn in virtually any situation is “time on task,” defined as how much time a student spends actively attending to the learning task at hand. This factor seems to hold for teaching 1st graders to read, army recruits to fire a rifle, quarterbacks to throw a football, or auto mechanics to tune an engine. No matter what skill or understanding is being taught, and no matter to whom, the one abiding factor crucial to the success of the process is time on task.

So it would seem there is little mystery about what might be “wrong” with America’s education system, or what might be done to fix it. Our students simply do not spend enough time actively engaged in learning, whether in school or at home. If we think Americans can learn as much as others while putting forth half the effort, we are just not cognizant of one of the obvious lessons of education research. A student cannot learn if he or she is not actively engaged in the process. Learning does not occur by osmosis. It requires attention and time.

See Also

A Nation at Risk: 25 Years Later

For the collected stories and online features in this series, see A Nation at Risk: 25 Years Later.

All of the current reform efforts, however genuinely motivated and sincere, from choice to vouchers to school-based management, are not likely to result in any meaningful improvement in student learning without an absolute increase in the time students spend in an active learning environment.

Daniel B. Taylor, then the deputy executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board and a former senior vice president of the College Board and state schools superintendent of West Virginia, in his Sept. 11, 1991, Commentary “Half-Time Schools and Half-Baked Students.”

Given the deplorable state of schools in many areas, expanding the school year now is like installing an expensive stereo system in a car with bald tires and worn-out brakes.

Before we embark on a huge spending program to add a few extra school days, let’s first equip schools with decent supplies, current texts, and more library books. Let’s reinstate the many music, arts, and sports programs cut in recent years. And let’s rebuild our dilapidated school buildings, improve teacher salaries to get quality professionals in the classroom, and lower class sizes across all the grade levels.

John Moir, a Santa Cruz, Calif., teacher, in his Feb. 25, 1998, Commentary “Lengthening the School Year Will Hurt Schools.”

Many school systems have been unable to effectively improve student performance, in part because their class scheduling and curriculum design ignore the common-sense premise that students learn at different rates.

We all know someone who could learn to play a reasonably competent game of chess after a short period of instruction and practice, while we know others who would need much more instruction and diligent practice to achieve a comparably competent game. Similarly, some people have a knack for learning languages, while others study for years without becoming fluent. School reformers must incorporate this learning principle—that learning rates and times vary—if we hope to make substantial improvements in the academic performance of American students. Until the utilization of educational time is fully flexible, to meet each student’s learning needs, our schools will be unable to deliver on the fundamental education reform promise that all students will have an opportunity to achieve a high standard of learning.

S. Paul Reville, then the co-director of the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform, in his May 5, 1999, Commentary “Breaking Out of the ‘Prison of Time.’ ”

To change the pace of school is the clearest, simplest, and most straightforward way to improve education. It will not be easy to do; nothing worth doing ever is. Here are just a few of the ways we might re-regulate the school and our well-intentioned but unrealistic expectations of students:

• Lengthen the academic year and keep schools open longer each day.

• Reduce school size.

• Reduce class size to fewer than 20 in the primary grades.

• Increase the quality of instructional time by eliminating formal tracking.

• Teach social skills as an integrated part of the content curriculum.

• Change the architectural design of new schools to create small schools within large schools.

• Narrow the scope of the curriculum and lengthen time blocks.

• Reduce the number of “specials” that pull children out of classrooms and move special-area teachers back into regular classrooms.

• Construct realistic daily schedules with adequate time for transitions.

• Reduce the number of transitions.

• Go slower at the beginning of the school year to create clearer expectations and standards.

• Adjust the school day to allow for midday exercise, nutrition, and rest—in that order.

• Add reflection time as a part of every lesson, class, and school day.

The use of time in school indicates our respect for learning and our understanding of those we seek to teach. Taking time to help students see the applications of the skills and content they are learning deepens their reasoning and helps engender respect for the educational process. This, in turn, allows them to see state tests designed to measure their academic growth as reasonable and, consequently, will enable better results on these assessments.

Chip Wood, a co-founder of the Northeast Foundation for Children, in his Oct. 13, 1999, Commentary “Time and Reform.”

I want more from our newly upgraded and recognized profession of teaching. I want 12 months of school. [A]n agrarian-based calendar—three months or more for children to help with the farm work—became outdated more than a century ago. [And] teachers have suffered from the unfair criticism that they have three months every year to do nothing. ...

[Y]ear-round school would bring the best chance for more and better education to those in greatest need—the poorest among us. ... It is they who, because of broken families and uncertain livelihoods, cannot put together a plan for their children’s schooling. ... It is they who have the least time and attention to give to their children. The wealthy and upper-class are able to provide the extras of learning—summer camp for numerous educational and cultural activities, tutorials for the routine and exotic, travel for both learning and leisure—and [to do so] within a calendar of their own choosing.

A longer school year would, in most school districts, bring a broadened curriculum that would require a longer school day. In many schools, athletics are what now keep some students engaged for longer periods each day on school grounds. Shouldn’t we do as much for students who could benefit from similar programs in music, art, dance, theater, or other studies?

Instead of rushing through, sending both students and teachers home lugging computers, textbooks, and fat briefcases and backpacks, let’s dismiss them with homework already completed, papers graded, and lesson plans in place. Rushing from opening bell to closing guarantees short tempers and constant frustration.

Year-round school, with an enriched curriculum from nursery and kindergarten through grade 12, can be expected to hold the attention of more of our young people than is now the case. Without three months to disconnect from school, spend energies in less constructive activities, or break from all academic matters, fewer kids, we can hope, will join gangs to peddle drugs and flout the laws.

Lloyd H. Elliott, a president emeritus of George Washington University and a former president of the National Geographic Society Educational Foundation, in his Feb. 13, 2002, Commentary “Restructuring American Education.”

With the advent of high education standards, modern students are expected to know and do so much more than previous generations. Yet, stunningly, they are required to achieve these objectives in the same allotted time. We would never expect a long-distance runner to complete a 10-kilometer race in the same time he or she runs a 5-kilometer one, but today’s students have essentially been challenged to do just that. This discrepancy is why, at the same time the authors of A Nation at Risk urged the country to raise standards and install a system of accountability, they also insisted that school systems devote “significantly more time to learning the New Basics … [by requiring] more effective use of the existing school day, a longer school day, or a lengthened school year.” ...

With longer days and, by extension, longer class periods, ... [t]eachers could delve more deeply into subject matter without being pressed by the clock to squeeze as much content as possible into a single lesson. Cognitive science tells us that learning tends to “stick” when students encounter material in a variety of contexts, and such contextual variety is more likely to occur when there is time to engage in many separate, but mutually reinforcing, activities. For example:

• Schools could build in protected time for teachers to plan and participate in on-site professional development together, which typically has substantial benefits for teaching.

• More subjects could be included in the school day. The new mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, reports some research, have caused American education to narrow. Schools focus teaching on tested subjects like English and math, while sacrificing nontested subjects like art, music, or social science. More time would bring back these “peripheral” subjects.

• Longer days and years would allow for greater interaction between teacher and student, thus strengthening the teacher-child relationship, which stands at the core of learning.

Jennifer Davis, a deputy assistant U.S. secretary of education in the Clinton administration and the president and co-founder of the Massachusetts 2020 Foundation, and David Farbman, the foundation’s research director, in their Dec. 1, 2004, Commentary “Rethinking Time: The Next Frontier of Education Reform.”

To redesign the existing system of learning acknowledges that we are living in an age when information is always “on,” and knowledge is no longer confined to classrooms and textbooks. Instead of reading, analyzing, and memorizing information from a single source, the challenge for today’s students is to locate and analyze information from the multiple sources available on the Internet. Technology has created the possibility of teachers’ and students’ learning and communicating in a 24/7/365 world, not being limited by the current 6/5/180 school calendar.

We see different possibilities for policymaking in creating this new day for learning. Federal and state policies must enable a responsible community to develop around children and where they are. But it is in mayors’ offices, district boardrooms, community-based organizations, cultural institutions, and local businesses that actions can be formulated and energies marshalled to create the conditions for change so often missing from our reform rhetoric. The opportunity exists for leadership at every level to push for innovation rather than conformity.

A new education system will require rethinking purposes, practices, and policies across many institutions and interests within communities. ... Can we model the same 21st-century creative thinking and collaboration we espouse for our students to make it happen? For this generation of students, time is running out.

Milton Chen, the executive director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation; Judith Johnson, the superintendent of the Peekskill, N.Y., public schools; and An-Me Chung, a program officer at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, from their May 2, 2007, Commentary “A New Day for Learning.” Mr. Chen and Ms. Johnson were members of the Time, Learning, and Afterschool Task Force, whose report released that year was funded by the Mott Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2008 edition of Education Week as How Much Time for Learning? A Tour of the Archives


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