Another Voice for Increasing Instructional Time

In the past few weeks, we’ve written a number of posts on the importance of increasing student instructional time.  We’re not alone in recognizing the urgency of keeping the educational spigot on during the summer months.  Here’s yet another voice – LZ Granderson – calling for a greater emphasis on the amount of time students spend learning.  Granderson does a nice job rounding up the current thinking on the importance of year round learning and even references Harris Cooper’s work on summer loss. Cooper has argued that the cessation of learning during the summer months has a devastating long-term impact on a student’s overall academic future.  Our own Malbert Smith has made similar arguments and offered a number of ways to curb the effects of the academic loss that occurs each summer.

Granderson argues that the traditional school calendar was built around cultural and economic needs that may no longer be applicable:

…the reason for summer vacations in the first place was that little Johnny was needed in the fields to help the family during growing season. Today more people live in cities than they do in rural areas, and that farming structure has been obsolete for some time. If our kids aren’t working on the farm all summer long, what are they doing?

Granderson has a point.  At 180 days, the U.S. has one of the shortest school years of the PISA countries.  By way of comparison, Finland has just a few more at 190 days, while South Korean students are in school 40 days longer than their American counterparts!

In the meantime – until efforts to secure increased instructional time take hold as part of most education reform agendas – there are other resources to help keep students engaged over the summer.  Tools like Lexile Find a Book allow students to select books on topics of their choice and at their targeted reading level.  And because Find a Book is linked to public libraries, all students have a chance to access targeted reading material over the summer.  Tools like Math at Home allow students to access free math resources to supplement and reinforce their math lessons from the previous year.  The amount of math learning loss that occurs each summer (students rarely do any math instruction over the summer) is pronounced and found across the socio-economic spectrum.  Math at Home aims to curb the impact of that loss by matching students to targeted math resources that reinforce the lessons of the previous school year.

These tools are free and easy to use.  Be sure to take a look.

School’s Out Soon. Should It Be?

Here is Duke University’s Harris Cooper offering a bold plan for education reform – extending the school year.  There’s ample evidence to support the claim that increased instructional time has a positive impact on educational progress – particularly for low-income and struggling students.  As Cooper argues, the current administration has thankfully made extending instructional time a central component of their reform agenda, but he makes a compelling case for even more:

But it is not only the summer schedule that needs rethinking. The length and organization of the school day don’t serve our children well either. Look outside a school building as the day ends and you see a queue of buses and vans waiting to transport children to empty homes or to afterschool programs.

For the past 15 years, my graduate students and I have reviewed research on school time and calendar issues. We’ve looked at summer learning loss, summer school, year-round calendars, afterschool programs and homework.

For nearly all these reforms, the evidence suggests that more learning time would have positive effects for kids – especially for poor kids and those struggling in school. But each effect is generally small, on its own.

Most recently, we examined empirical studies on the impact of lengthening the school day and year. The collective finding (and the wisdom of school calendar researchers) is that a few extra minutes here and a few extra days there won’t be enough to have the desired effect.

Instead, the increases in time have to be substantial enough that educators can adopt new curricula – and new expectations about what students should know and when they should know it. Don’t add 15 minutes a day, add an hour. Don’t add five days to the calendar, add 20. And, simultaneously, change how that time is used.

We’ve written previously on the devastating impact of summer learning loss and have argued that steps should be taken to keep the educational spigot on during the summer months.  A study by Alexander, Entwistle, & Olson (2007) revealed that students across the socioeconomic spectrum make similar gains in reading and math during the school year, but that students from low-income families stagnate or slide during the intervening summer months.  As Cooper reminds us, students from more affluent families have access to a wide array of academic activities (summer academic camps, tutoring, enrichment programs, study abroad opportunities, etc…) and often don’t experience as much learning loss as their less affluent peers (although, it’s worth noting that students across the economic spectrum experience a degree of math learning loss during the summer).

Last year, Time brought national attention to the problem of summer slide:

And what starts as a hiccup in a 6-year-old’s education can be a crisis by the time that child reaches high school.  A major study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University concluded that while students made similar progress during the school year, regardless of economic status, the better-off kids held steady or continued to advance during the summer-while disadvantaged students fell back.  By the end of grammar school, low-income students had fallen nearly three grade levels behind.  By ninth grade, roughly two-thirds of the learning gap separating income groups could be blamed on summer learning loss.

We share Cooper’s concern and would argue that any serious effort at education reform must advocate, to some degree, extending instructional time for all students.  As is becoming clear,to remain competitive the structure of educational institutions (including the amount of time dedicated to instruction) must reflect the realities of an increasingly well-educated and global landscape – not remain tied to cultural norms and practices of the past.

In the meantime, our own efforts to combat summer learning loss can be found in the free utilities and tools we offer to educators and students.  Find a Book allows students to match themselves to targeted text based on their reading level and their interests.  Once selected, students can create individualized book lists that reflect their own interests and choices.  Find a Book is linked with public libraries across the U.S., making books of interest available to all students.  Math at Home allows educators to create entire resource lists specifically targeted to a student’s math level.  And because the resources are free and online, students can continue to practice and supplement their math lessons all summer long.  It’s our hope that these resources offer all students a way to remain connected and engaged with academic material year round.

Working Around Mother Nature: Turning Snow Days into Learning Days

We’ve written extensively on the importance of increased instructional time, and various ways to mitigate  summer learning loss.  As many educators have recently shared, all of the recent inclement weather has kept many too many students out of school.  Some schools are now finding creative ways around mother nature and have started utilizing technology to keep their students on track during the school year. 

USA Today reports that educators across the country have been turning to unconventional means to reach their students during recent and frequent snow days.

In Chicago’s suburbs, Lake Forest College professor Holly Sawyers uploaded videos of her anthropology lecture last week on YouTube and kept and e-mail line open while Chicago absorbed 20 inches of snow its public schools had their first snow day since 1999.  University of New Hampshire professor Kent Chamberlin gave an electromagnetic s lecture live – audio only – while still in pajamas.

In St. Louis, where blizzards have closed public schools for six days already this year, math, English, Chinese and history classes met via the Internet as usual…

With the proliferation of YouTube, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, and of course the increasing availability of personalized learning platforms, educators are able to stay in contact with students in real time – all of the time.  Personalized learning platforms, like Oasis and MyWritingWeb, make real time instructional content and assessments immediately available to any student with an Internet connection.  And these tools further strengthen the home/school connection by allowing students access to the same content regardless of their physical location.  While many enjoy the benefits of social media as a way to stay in touch with their friends, these tools are increasingly being used to maintain contact between schools systems and students – making instruction a constant possibility and the snow day a thing of the past.

Increasing Instructional Time

Much has been recently written on the PISA(Program for International Student Assessment) test results, which were released last month.  PISA is distributed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (based in Paris) to 15 year old students in most industrialized nations.   As The New York Times reports, students in Shanghai ranked first by a substantial margin, while “the United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects.”

This is disappointing news.  As President Obama recently stated, whoever “out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow.”  If the PISA test is any indication of our current standing in the global education sphere, we have cause for concern.  Thomas Friedman of the NY Times claims that we have “been getting out-educated” for years and asserts that the only way to bring students in line with international standards is through reform.  He’s not alone in calling for drastic change.  Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan says:

Incremental change isn’t going to get us where we need to go.  We’ve got to be much more ambitious.  We’ve got to be disruptive.  You can’t keep doing the same stuff and expect different results.

The good news is that some of that change is already occurring.  A recent Newsweek article highlighted a network of schools that, since its inception, has been embracing change and seeing results.  We’ve mentioned  KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools in the past and commented on their approach to education, particularly their focus on extending the school day and abandoning traditional school calendars by requiring summer school programs for all students. 

We’ve long advocated mitigating the well-documented effects of summer learning loss by adding instructional time to the school year.  Our own Dr. Malbert Smith has written on the consequences of our current traditional calendar, which limits educational time to far too few hours a year. 

Our own contribution to the crippling effects of summer learning loss is to provide educators and students with access to educational resources year round.  Find a Book, for example, allows students to match themselves to targeted texts within their areas of interest.  On the math side, Math at Home allows parents and students to select targeted math resources based on the textbook in which they’re currently working.  If you have not yet used them with your student, be sure to give them a try.

MetaMetrics is an educational measurement organization. Our renowned psychometric team develops scientific measures of student achievement that link assessment with targeted instruction to improve learning.