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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Schools, the Coronavirus, and the Near Future (Part 2)

When the coronavirus has run its course and Americans return to work, and try to restore their daily routines to what they recognize as “normal”–some things will change in schools. What all of those changes will be, I cannot predict. 

When I look back on my predictions about school reform and technology, it is clear that I am no seer. At best, my trying to look around the corner has been half-right and half-wrong. Not an enviable record. Especially because economic, political, and social policymaker decisions produce consequences that touch people’s lives. So being half-right ain’t too good. Nonetheless, I plunge ahead.

One change I do believe will occur is about how much time children and youth will spend in school after they return to their desks. One result of the pandemic has been the loss of the last quarter of the school year and decisions will be made about whether school should be held during the summer of 2020 to make up for lost time and whether students should be promoted to the next grade. Spring testing of students, an annual rite for decades, has vanished. Test scores for 2019-2020 to crow or despair about–won’t circulate in mainstream and social media this year. 

Moreover, nearly all states require 180 days of school of six or so hours daily in classroom instruction. For 2019-2020, that’s gone. Remote learning may recover some of the time but states and districts will either waive their requirements or mandate a new calendar for the summer and autumn to recoup losses in time or do a mix of both. State-required seat-time in school to get credentials in a highly individualistic and competitive society is not something to be cavalierly waved aside. So the annual and daily calendar of attending school will change for the immediate future. 

Readers should know that such alterations in calendars won’t be the first time that policymakers have tinkered with student time in schools. Changing the amount of time students sit in classrooms has been a perennial remedy to policy problems (e.g., raising academic achievement) with which state and local reformers have wrestled. 

Previous changes in school calendars

Since the 1980s, fixing school time has been a popular solution reform-minded policymakers have promoted to improve U.S. schools yet one that is least connected to what happens in classrooms or what Americans want from tax-supported schools.

Since A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, Prisoners of Time in 1994, blue-ribbon commission recommendations in Tough Choices,Tough Times in 2007, and in 2012 high profile leaders formed a new national coalition to add time to the school day and year, reformers have criticized how long and how well students spend time in school. Now that topic will gain renewed heft with the coronavirus pandemic.

In the past, criticism of school schedules came from business and civic leaders who saw the United States stuck in the middle ranks of of nations on international tests. These leaders saw a link between Asian and European governments requiring more days in school and their lead in global marketplaces. Foreign students outscoring U.S. test-takers was, to these U.S. critics of schooling, an important sign of American schools and the economy falling behind. Criticism of the amount of time students spent in school also came from employers who wondered whether the required days and hours students spent in classes were sufficient to produce the knowledge, skills, and behaviors their employees needed to work in a globally competitive economy

Disapproval of readitional school calendars and daily schedules also came from those working parents–increased numbers of families with both spouses working as well as single mothers occurring since the 1970s– who needed schools open early in the morning and to remain open after 3 PM until they picked up their children before dinner.

Censure also came from professors who scolded policymakers for allotting so little time for teachers to gain new knowledge and skills during the school day. Many wanted policymakers to distinguish between requiring more seat-time in school and academic learning time or time on task, jargon for those hours and minutes where teachers engage students in learning content and skills.

Finally, there has been a steady downpour of criticism of traditional seat time in school from online champions who saw hundreds of students sitting at school desks for 180 days as quaint in the midst of a revolution in communication devices. Children and youth now can learn the formal curriculum at home and other venues rather than sitting in classrooms. Online learning advocates, joined by those who saw cyber-schools as the future, wanted children and youth to spend less time in K-12 classrooms. 

How successful have critics been in fixing school time? 

Presidential commissions, parents, academics, and employers have proposed to policymakers the same solutions again and again: Add more days to the annual school calendar. Create year-round schools. Add instructional time to the daily schedule. Extend the school day. These familiar—almost traditional–recommendations are as close as one can come, metaphorically, to the missionary position in sex. What has happened to each proposal in the past quarter-century?

Longer school year. Recommendations for a longer school year (from 180 to 220 days) have come from A Nation at Risk (1983) and Prisoners of Time (1994) plus scores of other commissions and experts. Yet over a decade later, one foundation-funded reportA Stagnant Nation: Why American Students Are Still at Risk, found that the 180-day school year was intact across the nation and only Massachusetts had started a pilot program to help districts lengthen the school year. The same report graded states’ progress made on those quarter-century old recommendations: States extending their school year received an “F.” In 2018, 42 states mandated 180 days of instruction (the other 8 required 174-178 days).

Year-round schools. The homespun myth that the annual school calendar with three months off for both teachers and students is based on the rhythm of 19th century farm life still receives respectful attention. Thus, planting and harvesting chores accounted for long summer breaks, an artifact of agrarian America. Not so.

Actually summer vacations grew out of early 20th century urban middle-class parents (and later lobbyists for camps and the tourist industry) pressing school boards to release children to be with their families for six to eight weeks during the summer. By the 1960s, however, policymaker and parent concerns about students losing ground academically during the vacation months—in academic language, “summer loss”—gained support for year-round schooling. Cost savings also attracted those who saw facilities being used 12 months a year rather than being shuttered during the summer.

Nonetheless, although year-round schools were established as early as 1906 in Gary, Indiana, calendar innovations have had a hard time entering most schools. Districts with year round schools still work within the 180-day year but distribute the time more evenly (e.g., 45 days in session; 15 days off) rather than having a long break between June and September. Recent data find that only three million students attend year-round schools in 46 states (over 50 million go to K-12 schools). In many cases, what got school boards to adopt year-round schools was over-crowded facilities, most often in minority and poor communities—not concerns over “summer loss.”

Will, then, year-round schools spread in the wake of the coronavirus scourge? They may in the short term–say, the next few years, but I do not think so for the long-term–say, 2030. And the reason, I suspect, is both habit and cost. 

Americans are used to summers off and even with the pandemic crowding out the summer of 2020 and perhaps the next few years when students will have to attend school through, say, July, chances are that there will be a regression to the mean in subsequent years of having 6-8 weeks off between June and August. 

On the cost side, the price tag of year-round schools to cover additional teacher salaries and other expenses runs high. One researcher estimated that going from 175 to 200 days would cost the state of Minnesota, not the largest state in the nation, $750 million a year, a large but not insurmountable price to pay. But costs for other alternative ways of tinkering with the school calendar have been tried over the decades. Extending the school day for instruction and child-care has been one reform that has spread to most districts.

Adding instructional time to the school day. So many researchers and reformers have pointed out that the 6.5 hour school day has so many interruptions, so many distractions that teachers have less than five hours of genuine classroom instruction for student learning. Advocates of more instructional time have tried to stretch the actual amount of instructional time available to teachers to a seven-hour day (or 5.5 hours of time for time-on-task learning) or have tried to redistribute the existing secondary school schedule into 90-minute blocks rather than the traditional 50-minute periods. Very costly since teachers would have to paid for additional time . Much easier to do and far less costly has been to add time to the school day.

Extended school day. In the past half-century, as the economy has changed and families increasingly have both (or single) parents working, schools have been pressed to take on child-care responsibilities such as tutoring and homework supervision before and after school. Many elementary schools open at 7 AM for parents to drop off their children and have after-school programs that close at 6 PM in many middle class neighborhoods but especially in neighborhoods serving low-income families. Opinion polls since the early 1980s show increased support for these before- and after-school programs (KAPPAN poll). Moreover, all-day kindergartens (and pre-kindergartens for four year-olds), especially in low-income neighborhoods have spread swiftly in the past two decades. Innovative urban schools such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) run longer school days. The latter routinely opens at 7:30 AM and closes at 5 PM while scheduling biweekly Saturday classes and three weeks of school during the summer.

If there is a success story in fixing school time that reformers can thump their chests over, it is extending the school day. How much of that success, however, came from reformers’ arguments and actions and how much came from economic and social changes in family structure, both parents working, I cannot say.

Online education. And what about those cheer-leading technological enthusiasts who see fixing time in school as a wasted effort when online schooling can increase students’ academic achievement or even replace formal schooling? Promoters argue that children and youth learning in schools should not be measured by how long they occupy seats in classrooms but by how they master the content and skills in the curriculum they study. Competency-based education looks to students learning specific skills and content and their being assessed to determine whether they have learned the prescribed work. Some of that rhetoric has already surfaced even before the pandemic has ended (see here and here). 

There are obvious difficulties of teaching online all subjects such as reading and math in elementary schools vs. physical education, art, music. Being at home while daily routines of family or a solitary life sap the necessary will-power of listening to lectures, completing software lessons and taking tests online before moving onto the next unit or skill (see here). And, of course, there is the digital inequality that robs children in families where Internet access is either limited or non-existent and available devices are absent or obsolete. Finally, there is the limited research of comparing online schooling with traditional schooling that hardly shows online lessons to be better than being in physical classrooms with teachers, particularly for low-income children of color (see here and here).

Furthermore, even the most enthusiastic advocate of online schooling recognizes that substantively more online teaching and learning in and out of public schools is, at best, unlikely. Except at the margins. 

Sure, online instruction and competency-based learning already do exist in schools (see here and here). Such efforts will expand slightly because of the pandemic experience. Many courses and lessons, especially at secondary schools and in higher education, will adopt online learning and various forms of competency-based teaching but I doubt seriously that such approaches will become the primary way for public school teachers to teach and students to learn.

Fixing time in the aftermath of the pandemic

Decade after decade, reformers fixated on time in school have trotted out the same recipes for changes in the annual calendar and extending the hours of schooling. Yet for all the hoopla and endorsement from highly influential business and political elites results of their mighty efforts have been minuscule. Time-fixing reformers who have seen the solution to achievement gaps and low test scores in adding days and hours to school schedules and increased online instruction. Nonetheless, in the immediate future following the disappearance of the coronavirus, 50 million children and youth will still enter the schoolhouse door each weekday morning and go through a familiar day, week, and month of lessons. Even with the hurried calendar changes in the next few years to make up for lost time in the 2020, I don’t see substantial changes in the traditional calendar. Why is that?

Cost is the usual suspect. The price tag of extending the school year to cover additional teacher salaries and other expenses runs high. One researcher estimated that going from 175 to 200 days would cost the state of Minnesota, not the largest state in the nation, $750 million a year, a large but not insurmountable price to pay. But costs for extending the school day for instruction and child-care are far less onerous. Which is why the longer school day will continue.

Neither does online learning save dollars over time since there has to be an infrastructure of hardware, software, and teacher staff development built to support expanded instruction and assessment. Advocates of online boast that it saves money because the unspoken belief is that, over time, fewer teachers will be needed in classrooms. 

Habit and tradition matter as well. After the pandemic and school closures, Americans want stability and familiarity in schooling. A return to the traditional custodial function of compulsory schooling, teachers in their classrooms in age-graded schools, textbooks, homework, and, yes, even tests and summers off will reassure the nation’s parents that their sons and daughters are again going to “real” schools.

Overall, then, when it comes to tax-supported public schools, their political, economic and social goals plus their basic functions (e.g., taking care of children, teaching and learning prescribed content and skills, socializing the young) require in-school attendance, social interaction, and teachers doing what they do best. 

In the wake of coronavirus shutdown of schools, I expect reform-minded time-fixers will continue to sell the above remedies for improving poor academic performance including much more online instruction. And while I expect a marginal growth in students going online, I also expect that current school reforms that can be dated back to the Nation at Risk report (1983), will remain in place as will age-graded elementary and secondary schools where instructional days and daily hours record seat-time.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...