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GRAVES: Dispense with the agrarian school calendar

Joe Graves

As has been my custom since arriving in Mitchell, I allocate my final "Educationally Speaking" column for the school year to the issue of the paucity of instructional time available to students in South Dakota and the United States due to the obsolete and, frankly, harmful agrarian school calendar.

If my endless yammering on this topic over the years leaves you feeling the need to skip my column and find a bit of comic relief, today's Dilbert cartoon is an especially humorous one.

My arguments for a longer school year are not really about a longer school year at all but rather about the need for more time devoted to important academic skills. My position long predates No Child Left Behind but, nevertheless, NCLB has had a profound impact on the issue of instructional time.

Not surprisingly, as schools have been held increasingly accountable through high-stakes testing for student success in literacy and numeracy, educators have increased the amount of time devoted to math and reading.

The Mitchell School District took this very tack early on in the age of NCLB by requiring specific numbers of minutes of reading and math instruction at the elementary grades and doubling the English and math periods at Mitchell Middle School. Coupled with the skilled and energetic efforts of our teachers, the results of doing so have included significantly higher student achievement in both areas.

But, as with every television commercial for the latest prescription drug these days, certain side-effects did accompany these decisions. One of these was the reduction of instructional time for certain other topics, including, at the elementary level, social studies and certain peripheral content areas (please note that I am not equating those two) and, at the middle school level, certain electives.

Mitchell has not been alone in this. A recent study by the Center on Educational Policy revealed that schools across the country, in fact, increased weekly instructional minutes devoted to math and reading by an average of 230 minutes, an enormous bump given that the entire instructional weekly allocation is only 1,950 minutes (5 days X 6.5 hours X 60 minutes/hour).

It is no wonder that art, music, social studies, recess, physical education, field trips and any number of other content areas and activities have felt the squeeze in these United States.

And it also is no wonder that a significant minority of schools in the country are straining against the straitjacket imposed by the agrarian calendar by going after new instructional time rather than just re-allocating what already exists.

Schools are adding days, pushing calendars deeper into what has been considered holiday/vacation and/or summer time, and adding to the length of the school day.

I have never been an advocate for the latter because I view the longer school days as a time of shrinking marginal utility due to sheer fatigue, primarily of students but also those teaching them.

You can't get blood from a turnip and you can't fully engage the 5- or 10- or 15-year old mind that simply hasn't had enough down time, which brain research suggests is necessary for the integration of recently learned content.

It isn't that such time is fruitless but that capturing such time through extra days rather than extra hours in an already existing school day has the greater potential for maximizing student learning.

Because I have always believed that instructional time is one primary raw material for teaching children and because it is the raw material most restricted under our current situation, I have also always believed that increases in instructional time would have a strong, positive effect on student achievement. And now we have the research to support same.

Specifically, Harvard economist Roland Freyer has concluded, based upon his reviews of schools in New York which increased instructional time, that two factors have correlated strongly with enhanced student success: 300 additional hours of school and high-dosage tutoring (which in my view is simply another way to most efficiently use existing instructional time).

Interestingly, as schools, parents, and education advocates have struggled with the balance between highest priority areas such as reading and math and still very important areas (everything else), they've had to finally acknowledge what for many of them is an unhappy truth -- it is not that we are allocating too much time to reading and math and thus penalizing everything else, but rather that there simply isn't enough time to do everything we want to do under the current realities of instructional time.

And so the solution now being arrived at in Brooklyn and Massachusetts and California and Baltimore and New Orleans is not the reallocation of instructional time but the increase in such time through longer school days and longer school years.

Across the country, the agrarian calendar is beginning to crumble and we are finally acknowledging that our children need increased instructional minutes in order to master everything we want for them in our schools.

It's about time.