Unpacking the Learning Part 3

Length of the School Day and School Year


Q: How long is enough time for a child to learn?

A: As much time as they need.

I wish it was that simple. In reality, we have determined that the old agricultural calendar still serves a purpose in the big scheme of schooling.  Many believe that tampering with this archaic relic is a waste of time and energy. Time-honored traditions are hard to change, especially when the alternatives seem so daunting.

Obviously schools have tried variations on this theme with a modified school calendar hoping that it will yield good results for all parties involved. However, there are problems inherent with modified calendars as well as traditional ones. They suggest that the time allotments make sense for everyone. They don’t.

Time to learn is so unique that we can’t even imagine what that might look like apart from the current 6-7 hour grade level, compulsory school day and 180-185 school days a year mindset.  The rationale that says more time in school equals more learning is widely accepted as fact.

In a cursory review of the main research studies done on the correlation between more time or extended time in school and its effects on student achievement, one finds a common thread. More time in school such as preschool or all day Kindergarten, does not translate to lasting benefits much beyond the primary grades.  It is also noted that the quality of time is the most reliable indicator of success. 

Of greater interest to me is how we use the time we already have in school. Schools are “childcare” institutions, sports arenas, social events magnets, health, welfare and nutrition monitors, technology advancers, curriculum police, student sorting and comparing culprits and the one-size fits all organizer of information. We have all acquiesced to this belief system, so schools work tirelessly, on a daily basis to ensure they operate with all this in mind.  It’s no wonder people think more time is needed. How do we fit it all into a day?

In order to effectively teach “all” the current standards for each grade level subject, a teacher would need a solid block of uninterrupted daily time with nothing else scheduled.  I have heard that in order to present all the material in most grade level standard documents, one would need about twenty three years to cover it. There is always a sense of urgency to keep moving forward for fear of lagging too far behind. The evidence of this delay will no doubt appear obvious on end-of-year assessments, therefore teachers are forced to keep the determined fast pace.

Teachers, whom I highly respect, often tell me that this is one of the most frustrating parts of their job. They wish they could spend as much time as each child needs.  They see time slipping away and can’t do much about it apart from offering their own lunch or planning time to help their students. This is not a fair fall back and is totally random depending upon teacher willingness. Sometimes after school or summer programs are seen as the answer to this problem of time, but are they really effective and how do we know?

Additionally, teachers say they need far more time to collaborate with their colleagues than their current schedules allow. This is why there is often teacher burn-out or the need for a “summer vacation” to recoup. This is also true for students and one of the many reasons why after-school and summer school programs often have low attendance rates and less than reliable data to demonstrate their worth. Parents have also come to rely on the summer months to plan vacations, summer camps or other family oriented outings.

In my book, Learning Unleashed, I propose a radical, but doable solution to the question of time. “Minimize the school day to four or five hours…Non-mandated schooling hours and days per year allows parents the freedom to choose other appropriate options for their children without the threat of punishment by law.”  (Pg. 90) Fewer hours for all students and less hours for younger ones aligns better with results found in developmental psychology studies that rarely find their way into our schools. Wait, doesn’t less time in school seem counter intuitive? Let’s unpack these ideas a bit further.

As stated in one of my earlier blog post, getting rid of grade level configurations would greatly address the problem of time. If teachers could utilize pretests, both academic and interest-based, to group students for learning without the age requirement, the likelihood of greater teacher and student engagement in learning would be increased. Teachers and students would be able to stay with the learning until evidence proves that learning was achieved. The concept of individualized mastery learning would take on a whole new meaning.

For example, a typical third grade curriculum mandates that every student masters certain multiplication facts with automaticity by the end of a grading period. We know that all students don’t meet this performance level within the given time frame. So we just march on to the next set of facts and grade students accordingly. Those who have failed to meet our deadline are now overwhelmed with more facts to keep straight and a failing grade as incentive to do better. This is often an irretrievable downward spiral that resurfaces each year thereafter. Junior high teachers are left scratching their heads wondering how these students got this far without knowing their multiplication facts.  It soon becomes apparent that something is terribly amiss. How can they do Algebra when they can’t multiply?


It is true that multiplication involves memorization, but for so many students this is where the breakdown and math anxiety begins. Statistically, there is a notable drop in math scores across the country in fourth grade. If we could stop the practice of timing when the learning should occur and just stay with the child for as long as it takes without punishment, they just might experience success. It may take 2 months, 10 months, 12 months or longer for a student to master a particularly pesky challenge. We don’t make those kind of exceptions in schools, we just pass them on to the next round of grade level standards hoping they’ll manage to catch up somehow. Or worse, we retain them to repeat the grade level they just managed to botch.

I have heard teachers tell their students and parents that they will not be spending any class time beyond the basic introduction to the multiplication facts because students just need to memorize them on their own time. Maybe students really can teach themselves.

Helpful Reminders  (click on the link)

Attention spans, interest levels, need for rest, exercise and play all point to a shorter school day. Tapping into peak learning times by starting later and ending earlier might address the early morning/late afternoon slump syndrome, a low energy issue that so many children experience. Ask any teacher to gauge the productivity level of the students in his/her classroom at the beginning and towards the end of a long day and hear a common response, “It takes a while to prime their pumps in the morning and at the end of the day they are so DONE and so am I!” Having students practice, for 12 years, the endurance test of long hours in school as preparation for the real work world is cruel and unnecessary punishment.

Not rushing to cover all the grade level standards within a ten month time frame is exhilarating. Not having to assign a failing grade to students who don’t meet the deadline, values and redeems learning whenever it happens. Less grading and less recording, allows more time for engaging with the students who are there to learn. It’s what every good teacher wants and what their students desire.

Schools must be willing to adapt to a new world, one where young people can access information on demand. They must also pry their hands loose of strict time constraints and allow for flexible learning time and space. They must seek authentic learning opportunities that take children and young people out of the four walls of a classroom as often as possible. They must also give up the dictatorial mandate of compulsory schooling recognizing that a menu of educational options is more in keeping with where we are headed in every other quest for knowledge and information. Simply put, they must relinquish CONTROL.

If school were not compulsory and parents could access it as one of many options for getting an education, re-imagining school time might look something like this.

  • Younger students, (6-11) can choose to attend school between 9:00 a.m and 1:00 p.m. this includes 20 minutes for lunch and frequent short free play breaks.
  • Older students, (11-15) can choose to attend school between 9:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. this includes 20 minutes for lunch and at least one or two quick, unstructured breaks.
  • Students 16-17 years or older might spend their last “school” year(s) in an apprenticeship, mentorship, work study, or travel study program. This is a parent and student choice with teacher input as needed.
  • When teachers are not in direct contact with students, time for planning, collaborating, communicating with families, and in some circumstances, attending school or district meetings will fall within their regular 7-8 hour negotiated work day/year.
  • Students (6-11 yrs old) are matched (with parent input) with two or three teachers that stay with them for the entire time. Mastery goals are set by the teacher and student with incremental check-ins, not by age or required end of a school year deadlines. Student progress is monitored and communicated via parent/student/teacher conferences, not report cards. If a student meets all the mastery goals before the five years, they are free to join the 11-16 groups.
  • Students (11-16) are matched (with parent input) with three or four teachers that stay with them for the entire time. Mastery goals are set by the students with teacher feedback. Progress is monitored and communicated via parent/student/teacher conference, not report cards. Students are free to choose independent study research/projects, etc. if they reach mastery goals before they are 17.
  • Parents may choose, in combination with school or not, other educational opportunities as well. These might include online courses, home schooling, community college classes, experts in their fields for mentoring, neighborhood service or religious oriented clubs and organizations as well as a myriad of other learning venues.

This scenario would work best in a school structure that values learning above sorting and testing. It presumes that children are more engaged when they have more control over their own learning without threat of punishments or bribery with rewards. It assumes that teachers nurture and follow the student in the natural flow of learning. Teacher teams share the coaching based on their expertise. It functions as a vital opportunity for those who choose to access it. It’s purpose clearly becomes student-centered and student driven. Teachers are sought out for their value as a coach/facilitator/mentor and are recognized as such with a salary that honors their contributions.  (I am not referring to merit pay here.)

This scenario also assumes that school does not exist to provide free child care for working families. That is not its purpose, nor should it be. It embraces the notion that parents are responsible for the education of their children, not the school. Parents are vital in this equation: Parent + Student + Teacher/Mentor = Learning.

For families living in poverty who may need extra support from their community, schools could partner with existing child care entities who offer supervised play, activities, or field trips before or after school times.  This partnership would be locally determined and locally funded. Many already exist in our inner cities as well as rural areas. Some offer low cost options and some offer scholarships that are funded through grants, endowments, and donations.

Many believe that universal preschool would level the playing field and address a pressing problem for low income or poverty level families. However, years of data collected on Head Start and similar preschool programs has not shown any significant long term learning benefits for its participants.  As stated earlier, studies have shown the quality of time spent is far more impactful than the time itself.

As long as public tax dollars support public education, there will be those who demand strict accountability. Rather than high stakes tests, punitive teacher sorting, or infighting over school choice options, can’t we all agree on one important factor? The best evidence of accountability is when we have effectively prepared young people to become productive and contributing citizens in their communities and world regardless of which educational avenue they access to get there.

This kind of accountability can only be measured one young person at a time in a culture that values all kinds of learning and all kinds of students. Anywhere, anytime learning is the future.        

Time Tolkien)

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