Many school improvement ideas vie for attention these days - the Common Core standards, new online and in-class teaching combinations, more social services, better ways to rate teachers. The most promising reform, I think, is increasing the length of the school day and school year.
But research shows that extra time doesn't help unless it is well used. With that in mind, the Boston-based National Center on Time and Learning has just released recommendations on the best way to construct a longer school day.
The center looked at teaching practices in 17 of what it called "high-performing and rapidly-improving schools" that have expanded learning time. The nine charters and eight traditional schools are in 13 states. I have visited two of the schools, the KIPP Central City Academy in New Orleans and YES College Prep- Southwest Campus in Houston.
Conventional thinkers like me would assume those schools would focus on increasing the time students spend with their teachers. But it turns out to be more complicated than that. Much of the additional time is used to give teachers more hours to prepare for their classes.
"Unlike most schools across the country, where teachers spend the vast majority of their time in school engaged in direct instruction," the report said, the schools in the study "strategically set aside significant time for teachers to work collaboratively with their peers to plan for and strengthen instruction."
According to the U.S. Education Department, the average teacher work week is 81.3 percent instructional time and 18.7 percent non-instructional time. In the 17 schools studied, the proportions were very different - 59.9 percent instructional time and 40.1 percent non-instructional time. This reflects what researchers have found in European and Asian schools with higher achievement rates than U.S. schools. Their teachers spent much more time researching and planning lessons and sharing advice about how to improve results.
"Teachers in these schools spend on average more than 90 minutes per week working in teams to plan lessons," the report said of the U.S. schools studied. "In some schools they collaborate up to four hours every week."
One key factor is embedded professional development. All school districts schedule a certain number of days each year for professional development. Teachers listen to lectures or do exercises to improve their skills. Often the lessons have little to do with their jobs. I could tell that just by looking at the disappointed faces of some of teachers I used to lecture as a professional development speaker.
The schools studied by the center avoid that waste of time by having their own administrators and teachers design professional development sessions that "are highly connected to school-based instructional goals," the report said.
Seven of the 17 schools devoted two or three summer weeks before students arrived for planning and development of new programs. Many blocked out time for teachers to collect, analyze and plan around data acquired from testing their students. In some schools, individual teachers worked with instructional coaches through weekly observations and feedback. Many schools gave teachers time to observe each other in their classrooms.
According to the center, more than 1,500 schools have joined the movement to increase learning time. Massachusetts has been particularly active, and its achievement scores have improved.