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Closing the learning-time gap

By the Notebook on Apr 11, 2013 10:48 AM
Photo: Shutterstock

by James H. Lytle

Amid all the debate about addressing the achievement gap, one obvious explanation has escaped attention: the amount of time that kids from different backgrounds spend engaged in school or school-related activities.

Having worked in or observed both public and private schools -- including inner-city, magnet, suburban, independent, and boarding schools -- I’ve concluded that there is a striking and straightforward explanation for why kids in the inner city do relatively well through 3rd grade before starting to fall by the wayside. They are not getting nearly enough time in structured learning environments.

Using high school as the point of comparison, let's see how learning time varies among the different types of schools.

Inner-city public schools
The average daily attendance for inner-city high school students is 70 to 75 percent. That’s less than four out of every five school days attended per week. Consider, also, that the school day is roughly six hours long and that most students don't take part in extracurricular activities. Homework, if it is assigned, if it gets done, happens in-class or in the next class, but not at home. City kids consider time outside of school their own time -- whether for jobs, family responsibilities, or hanging out, school-related responsibilities should not intrude.

Time spent on school/learning per week: 25 hours

Suburban schools
Most suburban kids come to school every day, a day that lasts six to seven hours. Adding one to two hours of homework each night, the amount of time  a suburban student spends in school-related activity approaches 50 hours a week. Those students involved in sports or other extracurricular activities are likely to spend an additional 10 to 20 hours engaged with school.

Time spent on school/learning per week: 45 to 65 hours

Private schools
At independent day schools (private schools) students are rarely absent, extensive homework is a given, and afterschool activities are required. It’s not unusual for there to be games, plays, and other activities on weekends. School time can run 10 hours long, say 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with two to three hours of homework every night. 

Time spent on school/learning per week: 60 to 70 or more hours

Boarding school
Boarding school is a true 24/7 school environment. Not only are there long instructional days and required extracurricular activities, but there is often supervised study in the evenings. Faculty join students at meals. There may be required chapel services. Dormitories have faculty residents. In a sense, boarding schools are total institutions where a student lives a controlled life, all day, every day. For that reason, boarding schools can have an enormous impact, positive or negative.

Time spent on school/learning per week: 168 hours

​This basic analysis tells us that inner-city kids are engaged in learning for about half the amount of time that suburban students are, and about a third of the time of private school students. Factor in the hours that suburban and independent school kids may attend summer camp, play on a traveling sports team, take music lessons, or learn by surfing the Internet, and the learning-time inequity only worsens.

But it isn’t only time that's lost. Relating to adults in different settings -- in the classroom, on athletic fields, the debate team, and at the dining table -- counts as learning. High school reformers cite personalization, mentors, and sponsors as key factors in increasing high school completion rates. To ensure those connections, suburban, independent, and boarding schools consistently place students in contact with concerned adults who may become their coaches and advocates. In urban high schools, student motivation comes by threat of failing high-stakes exit tests.

The process of being socialized into a professional work routine, while still in school, also makes a difference. A fledgling lawyer or investment banker is expected to commit 80 to 100 work hours to the firm; the expectation for medical students and residents is similar. On the other hand, for clerks at Walmart or bus drivers, anything above 35 to 40 hours a week constitutes overtime.

By the time they’ve finished high school, kids at independent schools have already accepted the fact that they might commit upwards of 90 weekly hours on the job. That kind of commitment is unimaginable to kids at urban high schools. They have, unknowingly, been prepared for the hourly workforce.

The kids who need the most get the least when it comes to the amount of time spent learning. We can tighten standards and raise expectations all we want, enriching the curriculum and adding high-stakes assessments for frosting. But the truth is that, before anything else, closing the achievement gap requires time. For most urban high school students, the time isn’t there.

James H. Lytle is a practice professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and a former urban principal and superintendent.

The opinons expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (40)

Submitted by Brian Cohen (not verified) on April 11, 2013 11:17 am
Torch - you make some great points. I love this data analysis. I think it relates to the idea of grit and perseverance as well. If kids are able to work for more time per day over the long haul, they will be ready for those busy jobs and perhaps have better time management/organizational skills. I spent 30 minutes this morning working with a student to organize her files into folders and made suggestions for what to do at home. I think she will be more successful if it takes her less time to get started on her work.
Submitted by Danielle Morris Sutherland (not verified) on April 12, 2013 12:10 am
Don't forget the time that is robbed from them a daily basis for announcements, advisories for the sole purpose of housing kids, shortened/skipped periods for testing accommodations. 180 days? No way they are getting that.
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Submitted by J.J. McHabe (not verified) on April 11, 2013 12:18 pm
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 11, 2013 12:55 pm
Interesting analysis. Do you think there is any relationship between the hours students and staff spent at these schools and the resources available to run these schools? Of course, the environment in which these activities take place can also vary widely. Some years ago, PSD ran a 12 month school and later dropped it because it was too expensive. Are there any statistics on these students and how well they did? The time is there in urban schools if the larger community wants to finance activities for these kids. New lawyers and bankers who put in 100 hours a week and making an investment in their future job opportunities and pay. What motivation might a student in an urban school have to put in these hours? Would you provide dinner, snacks, etc.,. to keep them fueled. How about safe transportation to and from home? I agree that time spent at any activity will most likely affect outcomes.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on April 11, 2013 12:55 pm
An important point is that students do not spend 50 hours per week "in school classes" in suburban schools. They spend that amount of time in "school related activity" which means they do their homework and school based projects. They also have access to every learning support imaginable both in school and at home. Suburban schools provide sports and extra curricular activities in all school levels. So do their parents provide structured learning environments through community based learning experiences. "Quality time" is an extremely relevant issue in this discussion. Suburban students, and private schools do not have large class sizes and they provide supports for their students at every step of the way. They provide their students with reading specialists and math specialists immediately upon their falling behind. My children were both held back in a suburban school in first and second grade respectviely, simply because they were not "above grade level" at the time. They were provided with a certified reading specialist every day and in class special education supports. They had class sizes of 20 students throughout elementary school. No one has yet solved the problem of poor attendance of students in urban districts and the high level of students cutting class in high schools. Nor has anyone solved the problem that so many students utterly refuse to do their homework or study. Extending the school day, if it means merely more time in class, without first improving the "quality of the time" spent in class and at home, is likely to have no short or long time impact. The issues of equal education and "the achievement gap" go far deeper than merely time in school.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on April 11, 2013 2:10 pm
I would agree with you Mr. Migliore, but I'm not sure if the author is advocating for a longer school day or simply making an observation. Certainly more time spent on learning is a consequence and not a cause. I think urban poverty creates a lack of "leisure space", room to imagine and explore safely. I have watched as parents curtly cut off their children's forays into that space, with disdain. If children are constantly in survival mode, it becomes hard to achieve the focus necessary for abstract learning. If you add longer time in this mode, it does not address the cause, only the symptom.
Submitted by Andrew Saltz (not verified) on April 11, 2013 10:55 pm
Well said.
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Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on April 11, 2013 10:01 pm
Torch made some absolutely accurate observations and you should know that he is a buddy of mine from back in the day at Uni. Do you know that he actually did walk into University City High School as a principal when it was one of the most troubled schools in Philadelphia, and he did turn the school around. He turned it into the leader of the Small Learning Community movement in Philadelphia. And while I have the "Torch sparkle" in my eye -- I entitled a chapter in my book after him and his work at Uni. It is entitled: "Torch" -- Rebellion and Toxic School Cultures. It tells the whole story of how he was "exiled by superintendent David Hornbeck to Uni" and how he turned the climate of the school around from toxic to collegial through collaborative leadership processes. He was a master of the art of the whole faculty retreat. They were fun times.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on April 12, 2013 7:37 am
Some great stories - thanks Mr. Migliore.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on April 12, 2013 2:42 pm
Couldn't help but notice the gun fight at Overbrook High yesterday but it's OK to send smaller children from Beeber into that setting in September. The whole thing is disgusting and the SRC wouldn't even dream of sending their 11 and 12 year olds into that madhouse but it's OK to send other little kids into a huge high school where anything could happen to them. Like throwing red meat into the lion den and the entire time, pretending it would be a natural transition.
Submitted by Annonym (not verified) on April 12, 2013 2:03 pm
While I don't agree with sending Beeber students to Overbrook, calling Overbrook a "madhouse" is unfair. It is not a "lions den." The fight and subsequent shooting occurred at 3:45 pm in a park across the street from Overbrook HS. It did not happen on school time or on school grounds. That said, it is a very sad day for the Overbrook community which has lost far too many young people to the easy access to guns and the willingness of some people to use them without thinking of the consequences.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on April 12, 2013 2:44 pm
Agreed completely. Should not have gone that far but the point is sending little kids from Beeber into a massive high school environment is begging for trouble. Your point is well taken though, just frustrated and scared to death at the insensitivity of the SRC in general but especially where sending smaller kids with high school and older kids is a tragedy waiting to happen.
Submitted by QuiddityRox (not verified) on April 11, 2013 4:45 pm
Torch--good to hear you still have time and energy to pursue your love for education. General George S. and you, were 2 folks I enjoyed learning about the practice of 'real world' urban education while at Pickett MS during the early 1990's. I have thought over my whole Philadelphia career that our students were being short-changed by the lack of time children devoted to learning and becoming citizens. I agree with what you wrote in this piece. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas.
Submitted by Annonym (not verified) on April 11, 2013 4:33 pm
There are many attempts to provide students in "inner city" schools with extended day activities. Some of the activities are not very attractive - test prep - but others include clubs, sports, music lessons, etc. Some programs even pay the students to attend (e.g. $50/month for attending about 2.5 weeks a month). Students who do work can't stay but many do not work. (I worked at least 25 hours a week in high school - I consider that a learning experience.) So, even with the incentives of pay does not get students to have these opportunities. Many working / middle class families would like to have more free to almost free activities for their children. We just can't afford to pay for music lessons, dance classes, play writing, etc.
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on April 12, 2013 9:25 am
ASAP, After School Activities Partnership, besides offering the BEST chess leader training and chess club support, also has a roster of dance teachers who volunteer their time for after school classes. I agree the cost of activities is often prohibitive/requires some financial juggling, but I would encourage all to investigate scholarship support if interested. Settlement Music School offers assistance, as well as the YMCA. The YMCA offers free membership for kids in 8th grade. In addition many of the City's Arts organizations do outreach work, where they will teach or have workshops for free or little cost at schools or other community locations. There's Play On Philly, Tune Up Philly, Temple's Community Music Scholars Program, the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra and Young Artists Orchestra, all offer low cost/financial assistance. The Fleisher Art Memorial offers affordable fine arts instruction. Philadelphia Recreation centers offer affordable activities, and many have an admirable gymnastics program (Kendrick I hear, had several place in the State competition).
Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on April 12, 2013 9:57 am
Oops, the YMCA offers free membership for 7th, not 8th graders - sorry for the error. They've offered a free water safety workshop to all ages (I would recommend this for all kids, especially the very young). Check it out :)
Submitted by KFox (not verified) on April 11, 2013 4:41 pm
I had a unique experience as an oil brat of experiencing private school, higher income public school, and middle income public school before teaching in an inner city public school. The description of the gap in learning-time is astonishing. I noticed it as a student, but at first thought it was simply a lack of high expectation from teachers at the lower income schools. After being a teacher, I know that the issue is much more complex. That is why I joined the Time to Succeed Coalition to dedicate time to work on expanding learning time for low income areas. I hope others will consider joining too:
Submitted by Sayre Teacher (not verified) on April 11, 2013 8:02 pm
Even with those 25 hours, how much learning time is lost when students consistently show up late and then attempt to leave early or a teacher has to deal with behavioral issues? Let's be honest, in a neighborhood high school in Philadelphia, like Sayre, so much precious time is lost dealing with chronically late students, many of whom may have missed or cut class that week therefore are behind the rest of the class, and also, dealing with problematic student behaviors (sleeping, using electronic devices, not paying attention, having side conversations, interruptions from the hallway) and dealing with administrative time wastes (overuse of the PA system). So even in those 25 hours, how much time is spent learning from instruction in a typical neighborhood high school in Philadelphia? I want to see some statistics on time on instruction in neighborhood school.
Submitted by Andrew Saltz (not verified) on April 11, 2013 10:02 pm
Having been educated in the prestigious Lower Merion, I have a few anecdotal observations: 1. My hours in LM were about the same - and we had study hall/free periods (taboo in Philly). 2. Homework is a very serious problem. Our school has a big challenge with it, it's nice to see others do as well. 3. Any plan that changes how long we are in school while maintaining the dehumanizing, test-drive structure is a terrible plan.
Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on April 12, 2013 4:58 am
Thank you for this commentary. Some reactions: 1. I grew up in a rural area, went to the local public schools and never heard of "Advanced Placement." Our largest student group was FFA (Future Farmers of America). In high school, we had sports, band and choir. Religious institutions sponsored "extras." There was 4H. Many students, including myself, worked in the summer and after school by 8th or 9th grade. My siblings and I worked in apple orchards, on dairy farms during the summer, at the local grocery store and gas station, cleaned houses, etc. I don't think many people thought about the "extended school day" or "learning experiences" beyond the 7:20 AM - 2:10 PM school day. But yes, my experience is from a different time and location. Yes, I had contact with adults other than my parents. Knowing and learning from adults other than family is important in expanding one's world view. 2. "By the time they’ve finished high school, kids at independent schools have already accepted the fact that they might commit upwards of 90 weekly hours on the job. That kind of commitment is unimaginable to kids at urban high schools. They have, unknowingly, been prepared for the hourly workforce." Do we want to require people to work 90 hours a week? Many hourly workers have to work two jobs - maybe not 90 hours but certainly more than 40. "Upper tier" professionals probably have to work long hours to climb the ladder. (As a teacher, most weeks, I certainly work at least 2 - 4 hours beyond the 7.04 hour school day - add at least 15 minutes before and after school's official hours to arrive and leave - and another 5 - 10 on the weekend.) Is is healthy to expect so much time from an employee who probably also has family responsibilities? maybe wants to mentor a youth? participates in a religious organization? coaches little league? works with their block committee? wants to learn how to Salsa? Yes, the cliche "there are only so many hours in a day" comes to mind. There should be time for rest and relaxation. (The obsession by some middle/upper class parents with over scheduling students - the daily after school lessons, "enrichment," etc. - also is not healthy. Not all "free time" needs to be structured or tied to "building the resume.") 3. What type of "time" should be there for students? Dr. Lytle listed extra curricular activities and homework, family time (dinner table) and summer opportunities. Some Philly neighborhood schools offer extra curricular activities from sports to clubs. (My experience is they offer as many or more than some of the small magnet schools.) There are summer employment opportunities which often include more school type learning than traditional summer jobs. Some schools offer "homework help" after school. Some teachers do this gratis. If the opportunities are there, how do we get more students to take the opportunities? (Some students do have family responsibilities and jobs so they can not participate after school.) Are we offering opportunities students want? 4. I agree with Mr. Saltz regarding homework. As a parent of students in Philly schools, I spend a lot of time nagging about homework. My children are fortunate that I can help with some of their homework. I have had many students who do not do homework. Some need extra help which often falls on the teacher/schools to provide. Other students just don't do homework. As Dr. Lytle indicated, they are adamant that they only will work during school hours. The pattern of doing homework has to start in elementary school. Maybe schools need to offer extended days to help with homework. (I am NOT advocating for homework for homework's sake - it has to have a purpose and be realistic. A 3rd or 4th grader does not need more than 45 minutes - 1 hour of homework.) 5. The "by any means necessary" schools (KIPP, Mastery, Young Scholars, etc.) provide the "cradle to grave" approach to the school day. The school takes on the role of parent. My understanding, though, is most of the extra time is aligned with test prep. This is the "test driven, dehumanizing structure" mentioned by Mr. Saltz. (If KIPP, Mastery and Young Scholars offers extended day, other than sports, that does more than drill academics, I would love to know. I'd also like to know how they pay for it.) 6. Before the powers that be decide on "time," there has to be an inclusive discussion, which should include families and students, about the purpose of the "time." Again, do we want to have a society that defines "success" by the amount of time one spends at work? Do we want to equate "success" with little leisure? While schools don't create the "professionals works 90 hours a week" mind set, we contribute to it. In some cultures, working 90 hours a week is not "success" - it is lunacy.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 12, 2013 2:22 pm
The extended day / weekend programs at charters vary quite a bit. In some places, it's more strictly academic time. In others is more like enrichment clubs, etc. They pay for it by either requiring teachers to do it (like taking on a club) or by bringing in community folks. It doesn't really cost much to run a chess club or many other enriching activities (and some District schools have them too, but participation is somewhat low, since getting students to stay in school when it's not "required" is tough). And a "cradle to grave" approach is really what's probably necessary if students aren't getting enrichment/support at home. Another factor that mosts suburban/private district have in their favor is a lack of disruptions. Most would never consider impinging on class time without a really, really good reason. And one the principalsI worked under in Philly shared that philosophy. But many don't -- assemblies, special events, etc. eat at even more of the core classroom time. When I attended a solid, but no exceptional, public school in a fairly rural area, I could count on one hand the number of days in a school year that were something other than a standard instructional school day. My first year in a Philly school, I the number of weeks with 5 full instructional days was actually smaller than the number of weeks without that--either days off or special/alternative schedules, etc.
Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on April 13, 2013 11:50 am
Couple of questions: Where the assemblies, special events, etc. that interrupted regular classroom schedule part of the academic program? Do teachers at the "by any means necessary" charter schools pay the teachers for assuming extra responsibilities like extended day? If yes, how much? Is it optional or required? Who is going to decide what is needed in the "cradle to grave" programs / schools? While health centers in schools would be helpful, and probably increase attendance, what else should be located in a school? (I assume a health center would include counseling services.) Who decides if students aren't "getting enrichment / support at home?"
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 14, 2013 7:26 pm
PPT, I found that many teachers at the school where I student taught had these kinds of questions about schools like Mastery. They tended to be very suspicious of Mastery. Many were just plainly anti-charter school even if they had never spent time in a charter school. I understand the concerns that many District teachers have about charters especially since charters are really draining the District financially. I can speak about what I saw at Mastery. At Mastery, the after-school program didn't have teachers on staff; the aftercare staff were generally part-time. I don't know if Mastery hired them or if it was an outside provider providing the aftercare program. In terms of the responsibilities for extracurricular activities, there was a teacher who had responsibility for coordinating the activities, e.g. collecting permission slips and providing information about the clubs. I don't know who provided the extracurricular art and dance, if this was done by teachers or by an outside provider. It was not a requirement that a teacher a Mastery be involved with the extracurricular activities and most teachers weren't involved with the extracurricular activities. I don't know if they were paid extra or not because I never asked. It probably wouldn't be hard to find an answer to these questions if you are curious. Mastery employs social workers and guidance/school counselors at their schools. I would not characterize Mastery as a cradle to grave charter school by any stretch. One thing that Mastery does better than the District is communicating with and engaging parents. Mastery staff are very clear about expectations that students not put hands on each other to solve problems. Mastery staff insist that students find an adult to help them solve their problems instead of fighting or using their hands. Younger students gather on the playground before school. Staff ask parents to say goodbye to their kids, but parents are welcome to stay for morning announcements, chants, and the code of conduct as long as they are on the perimeter. In fact, parents are invited to partake in the response portion of the code of conduct and chants. Mastery teachers stay before and after school on the playground to help regulate dismissal. This is a part of their job. About 30 min after dismissal, any remaining students go inside and wait at the front desk. At the Mastery school at which I spent time, teachers were not required to stay after school and work with students. Teachers could do this, but it wasn't a requirement. I didn't see any pressure for teachers to help kids after school. EGS
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 14, 2013 8:43 pm
As far as who decides if a kid isn't getting support at home, the teacher is usually the one who seeks out help for a child. The teacher tries contacting the parents/caregivers, usually in person or by phone. If there is a more serious issue occurring, e.g. the child says she/he wants to kill her/himself, the teacher would contact the social worker. The teacher may also submit a social work form (I forget the exact name) if the teacher is concerned about a child, e.g. are there signs of neglect, poor care/hygiene? Is the kid always hungry? With attendance, the person in charge of attendance handles some of these issues but the teacher may also contact the parents/caregivers in regards to attendance. There's not a cut-and-dried standard for which kids aren't getting support at home or getting enrichment. Based on what I saw at the one Mastery school at which I spent time, it's a decision based on professional judgement. It's not much different than at other schools really. It comes down to things like whether a child is turning in homework, coming to school on time, behavior problems, etc. Based on my experience in different schools, there was more of an expectation that teachers/staff take action about issues of concern at the Mastery school vs. District school. At the District schools at which I have spent time (in a practicum, student teaching, and working), there is more of the attitude that, "If the parents don't care, there's only so much I can do" from the teachers. Sometimes, the teachers at the District schools try to contact the parents, other times they don't. At Mastery, I saw that teachers did communicate more with parents than at the District schools whether this be over the phone or before and after school. In addition, because of the social worker(s), there was someone to help teachers connect with parents who were really hard to contact. On the one hand, the Mastery teachers have extra support. On the other hand, I feel like some teachers in District schools don't go far enough to connect with parents. The teachers just deal with the lack of parental involvement. Also, I think that a District teacher could ask the school counselor or secretary to do what a Mastery social worker does. But again, this depends on who the secretary or school counselor is. Some of them are helpful and do their job, some do not. In sum, Mastery teachers do have more support. On the other hand, I also believe, based on my experience, that Mastery teachers and staff are more consistently proactive and persistent than District teachers and staff. I have seen some District teachers and staff who try to engage the parents and "get to the bottom" of what's going on in a kid's life, but it depends on the person and the school. My observations aren't perfect and I would love to hear observations from others who have spent time at District schools and charter schools. EGS
Submitted by K.R. Luebbert on April 14, 2013 9:08 pm
Education Grad Student: "Also, I think that a District teacher could ask the school counselor or secretary to do what a Mastery social worker does. But again, this depends on who the secretary or school counselor is." Let's be honest--the Mastery Schools have the Social Worker IN ADDITION to a secretary and a counselor! Most District secretaries and counselors are (as the White Queen in Alice In Wonderland said) "running as fast as they can to stay in the same place." So, give us the SAME resources and personnel and then feel free to expound on what should happen!
Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on April 15, 2013 3:37 am
Mastery appears to have many more adults "on the ground" in schools - including support staff (e.g. social workers) and many layers of administration. In most School District schools, there have been dramatic cuts in support staff, from school psychologists to secretaries to nurses to librarians. Many schools are lucky to have one secretary. Philly schools also have larger class sizes than Mastery. Again, Mastery not only is able to afford smaller class sizes and far more personnel but also able to refurbish buildings (e.g. Smedley). Yes, they get additional grant funding - Lenfest is a major benefactor. Apparently, Phila. School Partnership wants to ensure charters like Mastery continue to get additional funding. Meanwhile, District teachers are told do more with less.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 14, 2013 7:30 pm
Philly Parent and Teacher, Regarding your points about Mastery, KIPP, Scholar Academies, and schools of that ilk, I can speak a bit about what I saw at the Mastery school at which I spent time. At this school, there were extracurricular activities available that were not academic. Examples included art and dance. I forget if the extracurricular activities costed anything to the students. There was also an after-school program for which parents paid. This program is basically an after school care program, but I know that it does include homework help. Also, Mastery schools do have sports at the middle and high school levels. EGS
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