Focus

Adding Instructional Time at No Greater Cost

by JOHN T. FITZSIMONS

Just about anyone involved in K-12 education would like to see the amount of time devoted to classroom instruction increased to raise student outcomes. To date, little has been done in this regard, yet ways exist for superintendents and boards of education to increase classroom time at the secondary level without breaking the bank or violating existing labor contracts.

Focus_FitzsimonsJohn Fitzsimons

One practical, inexpensive solution is to revise the school schedule. By offering one less elective course and by having classes meet four out of five days per week rather than every day, classroom instructional time can be increased from the typical 44 minutes to nearly one hour.

The length of a teacher’s contractual day is seven hours, or 420 minutes, in most Long Island high schools. The student schedule consists of eight instructional periods meeting daily. Time allocated for lunch and for class-to-class movement results in eight instructional periods that can range between 40-45 minutes in length.

However, if one elective period was dropped from the schedule and classes were to meet four days per week, it becomes possible not only to increase instructional time substantially but also to reduce the number of classes to six.

Based on the typical 420 minutes per day allowed by contract, a 40-minute lunch period and six four-minute hall passing times, the total time available is 356 minutes. With six class meetings instead of eight, sessions could be lengthened to as much as 59 minutes each rather than the 44-minute average.

A Significant Addition
Does an additional 15 minutes of class time really matter? These 15 minutes, over the course of a typical 180-day school year, add more than 7 percent to the customary eight-period day. In total, the equivalent of 13 more days of classroom instruction over the school year are realized.

How much would it cost taxpayers to extend the school year to 193 days? Depending on school district size and the salary and benefits it offers, the cost of instruction can range anywhere from $50,000 to more than $100,000 per day.

Three years ago, at the Lawrence, N.Y., Middle School, we changed from a nine-period day in which classes met daily for 42 minutes to an eight-period day in which classes meet every day for 50 minutes. The change equated to a 19 percent increase in instructional time, or the equivalent of an additional 34 days of schooling a year.

One day of instruction at our middle school costs approximately $100,000 in salary and benefits. By changing the schedule, we added $3.4 million worth of instruction over the year at no cost to the taxpayer. Those figures made all the stakeholders in Lawrence gain a better understanding and appreciation of how we use time.

Improving Conditions
Teaching and learning conditions improved significantly from added classroom time. For starters, the negative effects of student down time are reduced. Research suggests even the best planned and managed classes have an average of three to four minutes of downtime before the students are fully engaged in their lessons.

Principals and supervisors in Lawrence long have observed that downtime further limits the kind of activities teachers can offer in a typical 41-minute class period. Teachers feel pressured and frustrated to move quickly through the required curriculum, saying they lack sufficient time.

Teachers at our middle school acknowledged how the additional time enabled them to better engage their students in various instructional activities. The extra time allows them to enhance their subjects by engaging students in role-playing, debates, problem solving and simulations. Although 70 percent of Lawrence’s students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, our middle school students (with the exception of students with disabilities) continue to make adequate yearly progress as defined by No Child Left Behind.

The success of the middle school change has prompted Lawrence to increase instructional time at the high school starting in September 2013.

Three Challenges
Of course, we face challenges when we attempt something as significant as a change to the school day schedule. In Lawrence, we confronted the following:

INERTIA. It is much easier to maintain the status quo than to create unrest and uncertainty. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a phrase often heard.

PRESSURE. A revised schedule will reduce the number of courses high school students can complete over a four-year period. Some parents believe their children’s chances for admission to highly competitive colleges and universities are enhanced by enrollment in the maximum number of courses.

Parents want breadth over depth. However, college admissions staff tell us they desire just the opposite.

CONTRACTUAL RESTRICTIONS. The school district’s legal contract with its teachers’ union takes precedence over the social contract. Promoting what is best for the welfare of the students sometimes remains in the shadows.

John Fitzsimons retired in June as superintendent of the Lawrence Public Schools in Lawrence, N.Y. E-mail: cpwfitz1@aol.com