Shifting Time or More Time?

A frequent criticism I’ve been hearing about the “modified balanced calendar” proposal is that it merely shifts the beginning and end of the school year without actually adding any instructional days. Instead of starting in early September and ending in early June, the school year would start in mid-August and end in mid-May, but would include the same number of instructional days (174). This raises the question: would it make better educational sense to add instructional days and create a longer school year?

By international standards, 174 instructional days is astonishingly few.  In India, for example, students spend 200 days in school, and the international average is around 195 days. But according to a report from the Center for Public Education, there are fewer actual hours of instruction in most other countries than in the United States. “Of particular note,” the report tells us,

no state requires as few hours as Finland, even though Finland scores near the top of nearly every international assessment. As a matter of fact, Vermont—a high-performing state—requires the fewest number of hours (700 hours) for its elementary students (grades 1-2) than any other state, and it still requires more than Finland. Vermont’s requirement is also more than the 612 hours high-achieving Korea requires of its early elementary students. Moreover, all but 5 states require more hours of instruction at the early elementary school level than the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries average of 759 hours.

In England, where my sons attended school in 7th and 9th grade, there are more instructional days, but there are longer breaks between classes during the day, resulting in fewer instructional hours. The longer breaks—recesses, essentially—give students time to refresh and restore themselves between classes. The UK, it should be noted, is among the OECD countries that outperform the United States on assessments of literacy and math.

In the United States, we demand more “time on task,” more time spent on instruction, homework, and assessment. At the secondary level, we move students quickly from one class to the next with minimal breaks and no real recess. We require almost unbroken attention.

Education expert Alfie Kohn has examined the research on “time on task,” and come to the reasonable conclusion that engagement in a task is more important than the amount of time spent on that task. He concludes that students need more meaningful tasks, not more time spent on rote learning and test preparation.

Kohn cites an interesting Stanford University study that “compared four different reforms: peer tutoring, smaller classes, more use of computers, and adding an hour of instruction each day.”  The study showed that simply adding more instructional time was the least effective intervention: “On a cost-effectiveness basis, the time intervention was found to rank at the bottom with respect to improving student performance in mathematics and third out of the four [in reading]” (Levin 363, quoted by Kohn).

The Stanford study shows that “external increases in time allocations of students to learning will create a reduced effort for that activity” (Levin 361). In other words, more instructional time results in less student effort, and has little effect on student achievement. At a certain point (the “equilibrium input,” in the language of the study), students begin to slack off. Attention wanders. Productivity decreases.

The study concludes that “a more direct approach to increasing student achievement” would be to “[make] schools more vital and exciting places to be and [to make] the learning experience more interesting”:

If students are more fully engaged in their learning activities because of the intrinsic attractions of the learning experience, they will devote more time and effort to those activities (Levin 363).

More instructional days, more “time on task,” and more test preparation are not the best methods for increasing student achievement. Much more effective is increasing student engagement in learning.


Levin, Henry M., and Mun C. Tsang. 1984. “The Economics of Student Time.” Economics of Education Review 6.4: 357-364.

6 thoughts on “Shifting Time or More Time?

  1. Indeed, “engagement” and “quality” are certainly the biggest factors that effect student learning, and are definitely where any school should be putting its energies — good teaching results in good learning. And I agree that “time on task” arguments are hollow, especially when the task or the time are not wisely constructed. Our society as a whole doesn’t leave enough time for meaningful reflection or rejuvenation, so it’s no wonder that our schools don’t either. And like I said in my email, I don’t think we should have longer school days, especially for elementary school children — in fact shorter days may even be more productive — but I do think there’s an argument for longer school years, broken up by longer breaks throughout the year. These longer breaks can be time for mid-year reflection and rejuvenation, rather than an overly long summer vacation that leaves most kids bored at best. At worst, economically disadvantaged kids fall even further behind their middle- and upper-class peers who have access to enriching summer camps and institutes. Keep writing — this is fantastic stuff!

  2. Making students more engaged will require better teaching in many instances–certainly at the secondary level where there’s way too much rote reguritation. This, in turn, requires we have better mechanisms for teacher accountability–that we figure out a way to say to the staff who teach in boring and unengagning ways that they need to change their pedagogy.

    Sadly, the “all our teachers are great teachers” mantra of Northfield will prevent that from ever happening.

  3. One other comment: There’s lots of evidence for the claim that shorter periods of study broken up with rest periods packs more of a punch (academically) than long crammed days. Cognitive psychologists call this the “spacing” effect—the idea is the following: Let’s say you are going to study something for 2 hours. Your chances of retaining it are much higher if you break those 2 hours into several sessions than if you spend one session. Has to do with attention span, vigilence, and memory effects.

    So more, shorter days of school would be superior to fewer, longer days.

  4. Kathie: One of the results of the proposed “modified balanced calendar” would be to place first semester finals before the winter break, rather than after. Is the “spacing effect” applicable here? I’ve heard the claim made that having exams after a school break will have a positive effect on student performance, because of the spacing effect (i.e., students will have a break, then review the material after the break, before taking the final exam).

  5. Rob: I’m not sure the spacing effect directly applies to this, or that the question has been studied. It’s possible, and maybe even plausible, but I am not aware of specific empirical research that has tested just this question.

    • Terrific, thoughtful post, Rob. Thank you. I will share with staff and board members at PCCS.
      I had an interesting experience while teaching at a small elementary school in the Mpls public schools 12 years ago. We opted to add an hour to our school day, thinking it would help numeracy/literacy development of our largely low income population. It was a hard year. Teachers were exhausted, so were children, and I would contend that the longer school day negatively impacted student engagement and behavior. There was no noticeable impact on student achievement and we did revert back to the shorter, more focused, school day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s