Students and teachers in Sullivan County Schools are putting in some extra time this year, and system officials believe it will pay off in more ways than one. The Sullivan County Board of Education voted earlier this year to extend the school day by 30 minutes, effectively adding 13 days to its calendar, five to be used for staff development and up to eight days to cover closings for snow or mass illnesses. In doing so, the system joined a host of other local systems, including Hawkins and Washington counties, who have for years exceeded the mandated 6.5-hour day.
But system officials say the change isn’t just about building in snow days.
“Certainly, that’s part of it — having those days built in for snow days or in case we have to shut schools because of illness. But the more important thing is providing more time on task for students and utilizing staff development to help our teachers meet the ever-increasing demands they face,” said Director of Schools Jack Barnes.
While federal and state accountability systems have schools across the country searching for ways to raise student achievement, many are finding there are simply not enough hours in the day to do all that they’re being tasked to do.
Their solution: Find more time.
For some, that’s come in the form of longer school days; for others, longer school years. President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have both challenged educators to find innovative ways to make America’s education system more competitive with the rest of the world.
Most U.S. students go to school 6.5 hours a day, 180 days a year — fewer than in many other industrialized countries, according to Education Sector, a Washington DC-based think tank. By contrast, students in Japan are required to go to school 240 days per year, and students in Singapore attend year-round schools for 280 days per year.
The challenge, however, is that adding time can’t be simply that.
“I don’t know that you ever feel like you have enough time to do everything that you need to do. But this is a start,” Barnes said. “And it’s our task now, since we’ve made this change, to help our administrators and teachers make the most of it and to promote ways to help them utilize this time.”
Anyone who’s ever been in a school knows that not all time in school is created equal. There’s time devoted to formal instruction or learning, and time spent on lunch, recess, discipline, walking between classes and any number of other little things that can steal time from the day.
“The key is trying to utilize every minute of the day as best we can,” Barnes said. “To that end, we have a number of schools changing schedules around to create larger blocks of time in specific subject areas, to provide common planning times for teachers who need to collaborate, and to offer intervention and enrichment time for students.”
Leading the charge for more effective scheduling in Sullivan County Schools has been educator and author Lynn Canady. Professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Leadership, Foundations and Policy Studies at the University of Virginia, Canady has taught in grades 4 through 12; served as principal of elementary, middle and junior high schools; and held positions in school district central offices. He has published more than 50 articles on school scheduling and grading in respected educational journals, and co-written five books.
For the past year, Canady has been working with Sullivan County’s administrators and teachers — particularly those at the elementary level — to help maximize the use of school instructional time through quality schedules and engaging instructional activities.
“Essentially what we were trying to do with the elementary schools was to make sure that every school had what I call an I/E period of at least 45 minutes. The I is for intervention; the E is for enrichment,” Canady said.
Because so much of what is learned builds sequentially on what has already been learned, most interventions deal with literacy or math — and are designed to help address problems students are having as they are occurring so as not to impede the student’s ability for continued success in later coursework.
“For example, if we had three fourth-grade teachers at this school, one of them may have five students who have trouble multiplying with zero in the multiplier. But this other one might have three students with that problem and this other one might have seven. The issue is, as long as you leave that up to individual teachers, how do they all address that and take care of all of these others at the same time?” Canady said.
“The idea of the I/E period is that we will come together — and usually for interventions they’re not more than 10 to 12 days — and pull those from her room and from your room and from my room who all need to be taught [this specific skillset] and focus on that. The goal is to try to make interventions more efficient,” he said.
“I recommend that all of the enrichments will be in science, social studies and writing. Writing is a big problem in this country,” Canady said. “I’ve recommended that we look at the standards and prepare eight to 10 units of work that run about 15 days each and focus on those.”
“It’s amazing what you can do in 10 or 12 days if you focus on a specific,” Canady said.
The I/E period depends on data-driven instruction, he stressed, with interventions based on a commonality of need. For it to work well, there has to be common planning time for teachers to collaborate on what the real needs are.
Adding time to the school day will make it easier for most schools to provide both the common planning time and the I/E periods, Canady said, while still meeting all of the different mandates on their time including requirements for physical activity.
“When they started testing in science and social studies as early as third grade, it meant those subjects had to get taught. There was a time when we spent far more time on reading, writing and math — and if [a teacher] had time left over, they might do social studies or they might do some science,” Canady said. “And now there’s a requirement for physical activity.
“If you keep expanding the curriculum, when do you do it?” he asked. “That’s another factor [in extending the school day].”
Times have changed, he pointed out, and America’s education system has to change with it.
“It’s not enough to just sort and select, and say this one made it and this one didn’t. At one time, I hate to say it, that was OK,” the veteran educator conceded. “We used to, as a society, didn’t worry about those who didn’t do well in school. In fact, I would say that our economy was built on the assumption that we’d have a large workforce with low-level skills. That’s changed. Those jobs don’t exist anymore.”
And while not everybody agrees extending the school day or the school year are the best way, given the increased costs, to improve education, most will acknowledge that school systems have to do something to try to provide students with the education and skills needed to compete on a global scale.
“I guarantee you can’t keep raising those expectations unless, along with it, you increase the level of support — without getting more failure,” Canady said. “So the issue is how do you provide more of that support?”