Is it Simply a Question of Time?

December 10, 2012

In the last post, I reported that schools in five states plan to increase the school year in 40 schools by as much as 300 hours. Although there is some evidence to show that learning is connected in some ways to time, the truth is that the concept of time is a rather complicated concept. Time is multifaceted, and simply saying that kids will spend more time in school does not necessarily mean that learning will improve, change, or become more meaningful. David C. Berliner has done research on the concept of “instructional time” and sees it as an important concept, especially for researchers. In his view, the concept of time encompasses a wide array of concepts and terms, each of which has something to do with instructional time. What do we mean when we say that we’ll add 300 hours of time to the school schedule? Is it simply more hours in school doing the same kinds of things? What will students and teachers do with this extra time? Will the time be allocated time, engaged time, time-on-task, academic learning time, transition time, waiting time, aptitude, perseverance, and pace?

My interpretation of the proposal in these five states that the concept of time they are addressing is that of “allocated time.” It is much easier, according to Berliner, to manipulate allocated time than it is time-on-task or engagement time, or time for inquiry.

Why are we so interested in increasing the amount of time that students spend in schools? Current reformers believe knowledge is transmitted directly using positivist techniques that are objective, and efficient. Knowledge that students attain in school, according to the reformers, can easily be measured using multiple choice tests. Using elitist defined standards, schools are held accountable to goals that have become objectified by linking standards with high-stakes tests. Schooling is set up to use techniques that prepare students for tests that are a substantial mechanism used to evaluate students, teachers and schools.

The reasoning goes that if students spend more time in school then their scores will increase. Increased or higher scores means that students will be more competitive in the global economy.

One of the markers that reformers point to are scores on international tests. Comparisons are made among the countries by rank ordering the nations by average score attained by its students. In the chart below, I have plotted the 2009 PISA test scores against the hours in the school year for the participating OECD nations. The correlation between the two sets of data is -0.08, which means there is no or a negligible relationship between test score performance in science and the amount of time students spend in school during the year. Based on the data that most of the corporate reformers cite, there is no evidence to support the idea that increasing time spent in school will lead to better performance on the PISA test.

Furthermore, there is little to no evidence that achievement test scores are related to a nation’s economic well-being. The perception is that U.S. students are not competitive in the global market place because of their position in the rankings of the scores obtained on tests such as PISA and TIMSS. Research by Iris Rotberg makes it very clear that continuing to use student test scores is not a valid argument to understand a nation’s competitiveness.

Making kids stay in school longer each year will not make the kind of difference that corporate reformers would have you think.

Are We A Nation at Risk?

The premise is that American schools are failing. Student learning is dismal, and reform is needed to save schools and students.

The premise is manufactured. It’s not true.

In their book, A Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle show that their book was written in outrage. Their book documents the way the crisis in education has been manufactured, by whom, and for what reasons. Starting with the publication of the 1983 Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform by the The National Commission on Excellence in Education, there has been an “explosion” of documents and reports, most with little or no evidence, telling Americans about the problems and crisis in American education. Everybody seemed to get in on the act. More than 300 reports were written in the 1980s and 199os.

Now, nearly thirty years later, the crisis mentality is stronger than it was in 1983, and aided by huge sources of private money, and the continuing effort by the U.S. Department of Education to act in collusion with corporate take over schemes and benefactors, American teachers, schools, and students have become scapegoats for all the problems that American society faces. Yes, there are problems with American schools. But we have to realize that the current wave of reformers are no different from those who proclaimed in the 1980s that the nation was at risk. Americans are told over and over that their schools are failing and getting worse with time. But, as Berliner and Biddle have shown, this is simply not true.

For example, if we look at trends in average scores on NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) tests in mathematics and science, American students’ scores have moved steadily up for decades. Take a look at these two graphs that are available from NAEP. Steady increases in math and science. Where is the failure? American science and math teachers seem to be doing it well.


Trend in Fourth-Grade NAEP Mathematics Average Scores and Score Gaps, by Gender.


Trend in NAEP Science Scores by Age

On international scores, American students, when compared to other countries, have improved, not declined. And, when international scores are compared by using the lens of poverty, American students actually score in the top three in reading, mathematics, and science. The poverty rate in the U.S. is one of the highest in the Western world, and its effects are well-known, but ignored. As long as American education reformers continue to ignore poverty, joblessness, homelessness, and the income gap between the rich and poor, school improvement will continue on a road to nowhere.

Henry Giroux and Jacqueline Edmondson in an article Losing Time or Doing Time: Drowning Public Education in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy, shed light on the issue of time and the way school reformers and administrators continue to miss the mark on school reform. As the authors point out, it is irony that school officials worried about how to make up lost time In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Lost time? We need to add that to the list of concepts of time that I listed above. Didbthevstudents really lose any time? Giroux and Edmondson write:

Rather than use such time to connect what students learn to the pressures and issues that bear down on their lives, many school officials were more concerned about how to make up for lost time in in order meet the demands, if not the pressure, to demonstrate student performance on standardized tests. The stories that connect students and teachers to the outside world, even in the midst of a major crisis affecting the lives of students and their families, became irrelevant as the major concern that emerged in the aftermath of the storm was to speed up particular demands on teachers to deliver curriculum based on instruction geared to high-stakes testing. What boggles the mind and reveals how distorted priorities have become in many public schools is that while schools in New York City were overcrowded, unstaffed, and on lists of failing schools in advance of the storm, these issues were either downplayed or were absent in the post-Sandy discussions about the need to address the problems immediately posed by the tragic fury of Hurricane Sandy.

Until we understand how to use the time we have with students to help them engage in meaningful learning, simply adding more time to the school year will probably only affect students’ attitudes toward school. And the research evidence here is not very flattering. Evidence from the ROSE Project in Norway, for example, indicates that in major industrialized nations such as the U.S., the more time students spend studying science, the less interested they are in science. For example, when students in 40 nations were asked if they would like to become a scientist, students in G-7 type nations were not interested compared to students in developing nations. Note that kids from nations such as Norway, Finland, Japan, England, and Germany have much less interest in becoming scientists than peers in Uganda, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Botswana, or India.

Eng Average Response (lower to higher) to the question: I would like to be a scientist on the ROSE Study carried out at the University of Oslo. Source of graph: Svein SjĂžberg, University of Oslo

The ROSE researchers concluded that there is a strong relationship between the HDI (Human Development Index) for a country and responses in the ROSE questionnaire. They suggest that the higher the level of development of a country, the lower the interest in science and technology-related topics. So, students in Uganda and Bangladesh show more interest in learning about topics in science than students in more developed nations like Norway, and Japan.

Simply adding days to the school year is a simple approach to school reform. We need to think different! Could it be that less might be better? Perhaps we need to question the motivation of education reformers, and ask in whose interests do their reforms serve.

And one other thing. Finland, which out performs nearly every nation in the the PISA international tests has a much shorter school year than schools in the U.S. How can this be? Size matters here. Finland is a much smaller nation. Education is free, K through college. The poverty rate in Finland is 2%, in the U.S., 26%. And that’s for starters.

What do you think? What do you think of the idea of adding 300 or more hours to the school calendar? Whose interests are served by making the school year longer?

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The Art of Teaching Science

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Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a former high school science teacher and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University. While at Georgia State he was coordinator of science education, and was involved in the development of several science teacher education programs, including the design and...