Data show how much time SD kids spend in class
By Beth Wischmeyer, Argus Leader
SIOUX FALLS (AP) — Fourth- and fifth-grade students in the Sioux Falls School District spent less time in the classroom last year than most other students in the state, and Rapid City students spent among the most time in school, according to new data released by the South Dakota Department of Education.
The data, broken down by school at the request of state lawmakers looking into potential changes in the school funding formula, shows schools vary widely in the amount of hours in the classroom students logged last year.
State law requires schools to meet a minimum number of hours each year. The required hours vary by grade level.
Grades 1-3 are required to log 875 hours in the classroom each year, and grades 4-12 must have 926.5 hours.
In Sioux Falls, most elementary schools had just more than 963 hours for the 2012-13 school year, which clears the bar easily for grades 1-3, but fourth and fifth grades in elementary school narrowly cleared the minimum, which officials are attributing to weather closures.
Todd Vik, Sioux Falls School District business manager, said last year was unusual because of an unprecedented ice storm in April, which caused school to be closed four days, and two days were made up.
"In a typical year, we might have one day off because of the weather," Vik told the Argus Leader.
According to state law, a school is not required to make up time for school closures because of weather once it has reached the minimum number of hours in the school term.
Vik said usually, students in the school district spend about 21 hours above the state minimum in the classroom. The length of the school day in elementary schools, he said, has remained the same for the past decade.
Rapid City Schools came in among the highest in number of instructional hours logged last year, with more than 1,200 hours in most schools.
Superintendent Tim Mitchell said the school district has had the same amount of days in the school year but has increased each school day by about an hour.
In addition, the district started dismissing students early on some Wednesdays last year, Mitchell said, which then provided teachers time to work together in collaborative groups to develop curriculum, instruction and assessment activities.
"We try to provide both quantity and quality time students spend in the classroom," Mitchell said.
He said the district also makes a commitment to make up days missed because of weather, even if already above the state minimum for hours.
Brandon Valley also saw high instructional hours logged last year, with more than 1,100 instructional hours in each of its elementary schools.
"Success comes, in our mind, with time in school," said Brandon Valley Superintendent Dave Pappone.
Pappone said the district tries to make up any snow days, and it extends its elementary school day a bit longer than some other schools, including Sioux Falls. Sioux Falls Elementary schools dismiss at 2:45 p.m., while Brandon Valley's elementary schools dismiss at 3 p.m.
Adding time to the school day has been a method schools across the country have used in an attempt to improve persistently low student achievement on state assessments, said Mary Stadick Smith, director of operations and information for the South Dakota Department of Education. However, the state doesn't require schools to add time to their day.
Schools nationwide have debated the merits of a longer school day in relation to student achievement, but research doesn't point to a clear connection.
Tiffany Miller, the associate director of school improvement for The Center for American Progress, an independent, nonpartisan educational institute, said research varies in the amount of time needed in classrooms to make a significant difference in student achievement. The center actively advocates expanding school days across the nation by at least 300 hours.
"Ideally, the school day would be expanded by a significant amount of time," Miller said. "You can't just take on five minutes here or there, or cut back on recess to add five or 10 minutes, and expect something to change. Ideally, when you're looking at expanding the learning day for students, in order to impact student achievement, it really needs to be part of a comprehensive school redesign."
Miller said adding time as well as making improvements to teacher instruction, curriculum and how time is being used can make a difference in turning around "low-performing schools."
Joshua Goodman, an assistant professor in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School, agrees.
Goodman recently helped complete research done in the Chicago Public Schools, which focused specifically on the effects of providing two consecutive periods of math instruction to underperforming freshman students.
"We found that the program had a fairly big impact on their grades and on the probability that they would graduate from high school," Goodman said. "That intervention there was not just about doubling the amount of time the kids had, but it was more about really focusing the curriculum on that particular set of kids with a particular set of needs."
Several school districts in Massachusetts, several years ago, received additional state money to add two to three hours to their school day as part of an extended learning time initiative. Goodman, who studied the results, said there was no significant change in test scores in relation to a longer school day.
In South Dakota, the issue of how much time students are spending in the classroom has been a part of talks about how to improve the state's school funding formula.
Some lawmakers say an increase of a few days per year for several years should be required to see whether graduation rates and test scores improve. No decisions have been made.
Stadick Smith said the Department of Education will continue to break down per-school instruction hours each year.