Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Time to Learn

Much debate has taken place in recent weeks about school time and the school calendar in Lunenburg County. Decisions have been made from the top-down with little to no input from school administrators, teachers, students, parents or community citizens. I had the opportunity to attend last night's school board meeting and listen to the proposed calendar for 2011-12 (among other issues) and the justifications provided for the changes. After listening to what was shared by the superintendent and hearing concerned parents speak up during public participation with their concerns about the additional 15 minutes for each school day on a permanent basis (currently spending a month with an addition 30 minutes daily), I had to share what was on my mind.

All of the school board members know me, but I had never met the Superintendent prior to last night's meeting. I began with my name and address as per the protocol to speak during the public participation forum. I then shared my concerns that policymakers have become prisoners of time. Too often the focus is on extending the calendar beyond the required 180 days of instruction or adding time to each school day, but that is missing the mark. What students (and teachers) really need is not the "gift of time" the superintendent requested but rather more quality, engaging, enriching learning opportunities during that time. I firmly believe the current after-school programs and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers have been an effective approach towards this goal. They are optional for all students, strongly encouraged for some students, have data which justifies implementation. Adding 15 minutes to the school day is not likely to improve academic achievement.

Research shows that merely adding more of the same to the school day will not improve student outcomes. In fact, "more of the same" is likely to further disengage students who are most at risk for dropping out of school. (This is in direct opposition to the superintendent's stated claim that more time with students will lower the drop-out rate and better prepare them for the 21st century.) Data from 73 afterschool programs concludes that students have opportunities to explore interests, learn real world skills, solve problems, develop leadership and teamwork skills, connect with adult role models, improve academic skills in core subject areas, and raise their self-esteem.

There is a vast difference between allocated time (time on school calendar) and academic learning time (time students are working on rigorous tasks at the appropriate level of difficulty for them) which is further complicated by student engagement (time students are actually paying attention). The crude policy solutions of more school days and longer days do not even begin to touch the deeper truth that we have to improve the quality of this academic learning time. I see danger in extending the school day as proposed for the 2011-12 calendar, when what we really need is to imaginatively expand learning opportunities for all students.

One final thought from around the world: US initiatives include extended school day, increased homework, more high-stakes testing. The underlying assumption is that this will produce smarter, better-prepared students. The reality is that Finland students only spend about 600 hours in classrooms and are ranked among the highest in international math and reading test scores. US students on the other hand spend about 1100 hours (almost twice as much TIME) with scores that are 10-20% lower than Finnish students of the same age. It would appear that to fix school time requires more than time!

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