Focus on Instructional Time, Not School Days

In one of his last official acts as Ohio’s top executive, Governor Taft used a line-item veto to purge a provision added to the Ohio Core legislation that would have affected the school calendar. Taft vetoed language allowing schools to operate for a minimum number of hours instead of days for fear that some school districts would move to a four-day week. The provision’s champion, Representative Thom Collier (R-Mount Vernon), has nevertheless promised to push the measure again later this year--believing it offers districts the flexibility to make up time when schools miss more than their allotted five calamity days.

To be sure, rethinking Ohio’s school calendar and how schools are ultimately funded is an effort worth pursuing. But if Ohio moves from funding school days to school hours, it should do so to increase the amount of time students actually spend learning, not simply to make it easier for districts to recoup “snow days” or shorten the school week.

Most states require somewhere around 180 days of school a year. Yet when these school days are broken down by hours, the disparity in time spent in school across districts can be dramatic (see here). For instance, Cleveland Municipal has a 178-day school calendar, and a school day lasting 6 hours and 40 minutes long. Houston, in contrast, has a 180-day school calendar, but students are in school 7 hours a day. In a typical school year, children in Houston spend 73 hours--roughly 11 days--more time in school than do their peers in Cleveland. 

Whether or not the time is being put to good use is another matter. But there is ample evidence that extra time--if spent on instruction--can easily translate to increased learning. A 2003 study of high-performing high schools (see here) in Massachusetts found that all the schools studied had expanded time for learning. And the Center for American Progress recently observed that top-flight school networks such as KIPP and Cristo Rey in Chicago feature more instructional time for students, many of them economically disadvantaged, as a central tenet of their instructional programs (see here). These high performing schools, and others like them, set rigorous standards for student achievement--and then vary time on task, instructional strategies, and support for students to help students reach them. More time makes this possible. 

As Ohio ratchets up the academic expectations for its children through legislation like the Ohio Core, it must ensure that students, particularly less fortunate ones, spend enough time in school, and receive more instructional time, to meet them. This will require taking a hard look at traditional school calendars as well as school funding formulae, for extending the school day will cost more money--though not so much as many people may fear. In a 2005 study of eight public extended-time schools, Boston education reform group Massachusetts 2020 Foundation discovered cost increases were not directly proportional to instructional time added. The report noted that when schools extended schedules between 15 percent and 60 percent, their staffing costs rose just 7 to 12 percent.

Any policy for moving Ohio's school calendar requirements from days to hours should focus on the amount of instructional time children receive. Successful implementation of such a policy will mean targeting resources at schools that utilize more hours of instruction to increase student learning and raise academic achievement.

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