Never enough hours in the class day
Fifth-grader Patricia Brown, 10, checks the morning message board for directions at Propel McKeesport.
Share with others:
Perhaps the most fundamental and finite resource schools have is time.
As pressure builds to increase student achievement, talk across the country often turns to lengthening the school day or school year -- both expensive options.
But a critical question is:
What are schools doing to make the best use of the time they have now?
Or, as Mike Schmoker -- an Arizona-based education consultant, author and former English teacher -- puts it: If your bucket leaks, do you need a bigger bucket?
- Day One: How schools use the time allotted to them.
- Day Two: What schools do with the extra time in a school day.
- Day Three: Students can make up time they've missed or wasted.
- Day Four: Some colleges plan to offer three-year bachelor degrees.
Having worked in 12 school districts in Western Pennsylvania and Virginia, Carol Wooten -- now superintendent of Propel Charter Schools, which operates six charter schools in Allegheny County -- has seen time evaporate.
"I saw a tremendous amount of time wasted at the beginning and end of every class, just getting materials out, getting ready, [students] talking to each other and socializing. The teachers are often ready to have them leave long before it's time to pack up. ...
"Transition time in the hallways can include a lot of fooling around and getting to class late. I just saw wasting of time within the classroom, kids who weren't engaged or focused," she said.
It's easy to see how instructional time can disappear, even for worthwhile activities.
Pennsylvania permits schools to count as instructional time opening exercises, homeroom, supervised study halls, student clubs, fire drills, counseling services, assemblies, field trips, up to three days of graduation practice for seniors, early dismissals, delayed openings due to bad weather and breakfast eaten during homeroom.
- Every bit of class time counts in Allegheny County
- PDF: Instructional hours in western Pennsylvania school districts
Even some days when only teachers report for professional development -- known as Act 80 days -- can count toward the 180-day requirement as long the state requirement for hours is met: a minimum of 990 for secondary, 900 for elementary and 450 for kindergarten.
The state does not count lunch, recess and time spent changing classes as instructional time.
In many schools, class time is further reduced or interrupted by intercom announcements, group trips to the restroom, taking attendance, holiday parties, fundraisers, feature movies offered as rewards, early dismissals for athletes and teachers who coach, allowing students to pack up before the school bus arrives, lessons that don't engage students, or students who arrive late, leave early or disrupt class.
Unwilling to stand by as time vanishes, some educators ban intercom announcements during class, eliminate restroom lines in hallways and replace chitchat before school starts with a jump start on academic work.
"We fight and claw for every minute in every day we can get," said Riverview School District Superintendent Charles Erdeljac. Riverview students this spring made up a snow day although they already met the state-required 180-day mark.
What do students experience when time is a closely guarded commodity?
If they're first-graders taught by Carol Nelson at McIntyre Elementary School in the North Hills School District, they learn a routine that calls for work to begin when students enter the room -- some as early as 8:40 a.m.
By the time the late bell rings at 9 a.m., each student already has met one-on-one with Ms. Nelson to go over homework, been counted present without a formal calling of the roll, signed up for lunch by moving a magnet on a board and begun both written math and reading assignments.
If there's still time left before the bell, each student can choose from his or her own box of books tailored to his or her reading level.
This gives them as much as 20 extra minutes of instruction a day -- 60 hours a school year -- before the day officially starts.
The day moves along at a similar pace -- not frenetic but calm and continuous as children work on their own level, often in small groups with or without the teacher, or on their own with assistance as needed.
Fifth-graders at Propel McKeesport, a K-8 charter school, also find their day is structured to maximize the use of time.
As students arrive, English and social studies teacher Ted Griffin and math teacher Keith Smetak greet them at their lockers and direct them to start an academic task right away.
Some students get as much as 30 minutes of extra work in the morning before the day officially starts at 8:30 a.m.
Mr. Griffin and Mr. Smetak "personalize" lessons, so the students do assignments aimed at their individual strengths and needs, including working alone or in small groups as a teacher moves throughout the room, checking work and answering questions.
"We're always busy here," said student Tyler Blue of Clairton in Mr. Griffin's class last spring. "They teach you self-learning. ... They raise your expectations."
If students are stuck on homework at night, Mr. Griffin and Mr. Smetak take short calls on their cell phones up to 9 p.m.
After the state tests ended in the spring, Mr. Smetak and Mr. Griffin moved those who were able -- most of the class -- on to sixth-grade work.
This system works well enough that 100 percent of Mr. Smetak's math students scored proficient or better on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests taken this spring. In Mr. Griffin's class, 93 percent were proficient in reading and the same percentage in writing.
Administrative policies can set the tone.
At Propel McKeesport, no intercom announcements interrupt classes. Cell phones and other electronic devices are locked up at the beginning of the day. The school nurse initially assesses ill students in class so they don't waste time waiting in the nurse's office. Class changes are practiced so they take two minutes or less. Instruction continues until the last minute of the day even if that means school buses must wait.
"We say we sweat the small things," said Propel McKeesport principal Tina Chekan.
"What you do with your time and how you manage your time will make a big difference in the success of children," she said.
Of six habits Propel McKeesport emphasizes for students, the first one addresses the use of time -- "get here, work hard and manage your time."
The Mt. Lebanon School District found enough time in its elementary schools to fit in twice-a-week Spanish classes beginning in fall 2004.
It did that primarily by saving 10 minutes a day -- beginning the official school day five minutes earlier and shortening lunch by five minutes. That opened up enough time -- 50 minutes -- for two 25-minute classes for grades one and two. A little more schedule tweaking resulted in two 30-minute classes a week for grades three, four and five.
"It was a matter of sitting down and looking at the elementary day," said Nancy Campbell, world languages supervisor.
Randal Lutz, assistant superintendent of elementary education in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District, said the way time is structured is important, given tight school budgets.
"If you're not paying attention to it, that's a concern," he said.
Dr. Lutz, who began looking at time five years ago when he was director of elementary curriculum, has made charts and more charts.
He found teachers of special subjects -- such as physical education, art and music -- had extra planning time or were being put to use in other ways. They couldn't be shared easily between buildings because each building had its own schedule, and each of the special subjects had periods of a different length.
Now Baldwin-Whitehall uses a unified schedule, standard period lengths and new schedule rotations aimed at making the best use of its teachers.
For example, instead of a 40-minute library class, grades two through five do a book exchange in the library for 10 to 20 minutes, freeing time for librarians to go to classrooms to work with children on particular needs. In the spring, librarians help fifth-graders write research papers.
Not all of his suggestions have gone over well. He tried to abolish scheduled bathroom breaks and their resulting restroom lines, replacing them with a sign-in-and-out process.
"If you take five minutes twice a day, that's 50 minutes a week," Dr. Lutz said.
But he said he has been "asked to understand" that students in kindergarten and first grade may need a schedule and supervision.
"Kids were having accidents," he said.
So he has asked that teachers of the two youngest groups schedule those breaks at a time already set for a transition. Children also are encouraged to bring an activity -- such as flash cards -- to work on while they wait.
In the Pine-Richland School District, assistant superintendent David Foley said administrators reviewed schedules this fall, trying to "squeeze the most out of a school day."
This school year, elementary students will spend more time reading on their own levels -- by themselves, with partners or with the teacher -- rather than in whole-group settings in which a student may read for only a small amount of time at the appropriate level.
In high school, Pine-Richland students will learn some key summarization techniques to help them plow through difficult-to-read textbooks.
Dr. Schmoker believes as much as 40 percent of class time is wasted because of ineffective or inappropriate lessons, citing his own daughter's glitter-and-glue project in advanced placement English.
If class time were used effectively, he said, "We wouldn't be talking about adding time to the school year or the school day.
"It wouldn't be needed because existing time would be so potent it would work in any setting."
First Published September 5, 2010 12:00 am