Time for increasing student performance

Several states finally got the memo and have just announced plans to add 300 hours, the equivalent of about 50 days, to the school year as part of a State/Federal pilot program.

As a youngster, I lived in fear of this notion. Summer was a time of escape to a Huckleberry Finn/Spanky and Our Gang sort of lifestyle, though I was usually ready to get back to school by sometime in August. Growing up did little to diminish my view of summer.

So, why upset the applecart now? The problem is that achievement for most students has been declining despite efforts aimed toward improvement. We are attempting to squeeze an ever-broadening curriculum into a fixed school year of about 180 days.

In a world economy that increasingly demands higher performance and lifelong learning, while we cling to an agrarian calendar, what answers are there?

Educational research has long given us the answer, but research is so dull, boring and overly complicated that almost no one reads it, including educators. Fortunately, a guy named Malcolm Gladwell does read it. He has a knack for noticing important things that most of the rest of us miss, points them out and makes lots of money writing about them. In one of his most popular books, Outliers, he offers some solutions for improving education.

Citing how-they-did-it examples of excellence ranging from the Beatles to Bill Gates; from hockey to baseball; and within education, Gladwell found that high performance requires lots of high quality time-on-task. The reason that so many Asian kids dominate in math and science is not that they are innately smarter; they simply spend more quality time working hard and learning.

Rich kids out perform poor kids because they get more learning time. Conversely, poor kids can do as well as rich kids when they spend the same amount of time/intensity on learning. Kids who do best have less “down time” compared to those who achieve less.

But there is more. The time on task must be quality time. You just can’t just show up and sit and daydream (as I did during my study halls). This means delivering planned, structured and evaluated instructional time at every opportunity.

Gladwell noticed that to get really good at anything, the rule of thumb is that it takes about 10 years or 10,000 hours of quality time on task. The Beatles performed professionally seven nights a week for about 10 years before they became an “overnight” success and appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. Steve Jobs spent a similar amount of intense time before introducing the crazy idea that everyone should have a computer. Professional athletes have made similar investments and continue to be coached throughout their careers.

So how do we get more time on task in schools?

Our first step costs nothing: I urge each district to do a careful audit of how we spend the time already available.

If we have 180 instructional days per school year, with 6 hours in each day, are we spending each of those 1080 hours in the most productive manner possible and on the most necessary learning activities for each student?

Can we reduce or eliminate any of those hours of activities that are not instructional? Do we interrupt and displace instructional time with PA announcements, assemblies, “fun” days, fund raisers and other entertainments?

Does every student have a personal education plan that neither holds him back nor moves him too fast? Are parents fully committed to the instructional process? Is student discipline conducive to learning? Do we control bullying? Are we employing the best learning technologies? Are we committed to high levels of learning for all students? Are we differentiating instruction for each student? Is every school day, including the first and last, a full instructional day? Are we conducting enough targeted staff training?

Consider how little time our students spend on reading, mathematics and science within the larger curriculum during their academic careers. Now think about how much of that is truly quality time.

We need to use every minute of our currently available instructional time wisely. In the school districts where I have served, we doubled our reading and math periods and saw corresponding increases in student proficiency.

The second step costs little, but is equally important. Before we add many more days to the school calendar, we should consider extending the length of the school day by at least sixty minutes. This is a good beginning and can yield the equivalent of no less than 30 additional instructional days per year, while minimizing the disruption to the current calendar and keeping non-instructional costs in check.

A longer school day may be anathema to those who use study halls for nap times. But the cumulative effect on our children’s preparedness is real and substantial.

On behalf of Huckleberry Finn, Our Gang and Malcolm Gladwell, I rest our case

Editor’s note: Dr. Terry Wallace is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Innovation in Education at West Liberty University and a Senior Fellow at the Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia.