When Time Isn't the Only Thing

  • 19 January, 2010

For 20 years, my speeches and writing have been heavily oriented towards time--amount of instruction. I have made a big deal that schools with longer school days tend to do better as do countries with longer school years; that summer school programs increase achievement as do many after school programs; that snow days lower school achievement, as do student absences; that extended school years and all-day kindergartens work; that classrooms differ in how much instruction they provide and that these differences are related to student learning, and that guiding teachers to use time better improves achievement.

  A policymaker recently pointed out to me that increases in time don't always work. Specifically, studies of the NCLB-required after school programs show few learning gains. Or, the Reading First evaluation: RF teachers increased literacy teaching by about 10 minutes per day, but their kids did no better in comprehension. Studies of reading interventions for middle school and high school, that provided a reading class, didn't really work either, or not very much anyway.

  Have I been wrong about time? I don't think so. From the very beginning of such research, it has been apparent that the students have to be engaged in learning during the time that is allotted. I visited a school recently where the children were ignoring the teachers (running around, throwing things, etc.). Extending the day with those teachers wouldn't raise reading achievement, because there would likely be no additional teaching added. Time increases tend to work because most teachers aren't struggling as much as those two. Mark Dynarski's work on after school programs suggests that those NCLB programs didn't do well, because they have not necessarily added much teaching.

  Trading time isn't so effective either. What I mean by that is that, all things being equal, you'll be better off having students attend an extra reading class, rather than a reading class that substitutes for another academic class. Some of those intervention programs that are conferring a small advantage when they are taking the place of other academic experience, but they likely would confer a somewhat larger benefit if they were adding time rather than just replacing it.

  How many more minutes does it take to give a learning advantage? In the Reading First study 10 minutes a day didn't have an impact. Now maybe these teachers weren't really teaching, but what if they were? My own personal reading of research says that fewer than 30 additional hours of teaching sometimes helps and sometimes does not (more often the latter); more than 30 hours and the burden shifts (it's still a mixed bag, but more advantages are seen; and when the numbers climb into the 50-100 extra hours, it is pretty rare that gains aren't seen).

  One last thought: the reason those interventions may not look like they are working could be that the tests used in the studies aren't sufficiently sensitive to pick up the gains. Imagine a 9th grader in a special reading program. He is reading at a third grade level at the beginning of the year and a fifth grade level by the end. That means he is still 5 years behind, and it is quite possible that he is still testing at the bottom of the scale on the high school test (he learned, but not enough to be noticed by the test). Perhaps interventions with older students need to use multiple evaluation instruments, including out-of-level tests, to be sure that we are really identifying gains.).

  (I've come to believe that those middle school and high school interventions may have boosted achievement more than the studies could show, because if you move an older student from a 3rd to a 4th grade reading level that will not necessarily be captured by a high school reading assessment).


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When Time Isn't the Only Thing


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.