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Archived chat: Time, instruction, and student learning

On November 1, 2006, the Center for Public Education hosted a live online chat featuring guest expert Eileen O'Brien, education researcher and author of the Center's research packet on time and scheduling called Making Time: What Research Says About Reorganizing School SchedulesFollowing is the transcript of the discussion.


A superintendent from 82937 asks:

Is there evidence based on sound research that students learn more or less when they are enrolled in a school using a block schedule?


Eileen O'Brien writes:

There are so many types of block schedules out there and not enough research available to assess them all. The two large-scale studies mentioned in the research brief compared scores on the ACT or AP tests from those on a traditional schedule with students on either a 4X4 block schedule or an 8-block plan (also known as the A/B plan). Though the findings are not definitive, both studies found students in the traditional format did best followed by those on the 8-block schedule and then the 4X4 schedule. Although current research indicates that student achievement depends on how time is used, more research is needed to fully answer this question .


An individual from Arlington, VA asks:

In the 1995 update to the report of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, Prisoners of Time, the report discusses how and why we can and must consider changing the structure of the school day and year. From the new introduction:

"Students lives have changed. They live in a digital world. They use the internet, cell phones, and other digital devices to access information and to accelerate communication. For them, time is a resource, not a barrier. We call not only for more learning time, but for all time to be used in new and better ways."

What are some of the most promising ways you are seeing to restructure learning time in and out of school with the aid of technology?


Eileen O'Brien writes:

Very few studies or evaluations examine the use of technology in expanding learning time. However the Center for American Progress released a report that said the schools that were successful in extending time used online or web-based technology to supplement student learning, usually by allowing students to take classes at the high school or even college level.


A parent from Fairfax, VA asks:

Our son's high school has block scheduling. This gives him longer class periods in major subjects, which seems like a good idea. But, his year is also split into semesters and he won't have major subjects all year long—for instance, he'll have math in the fall, then not again until the next school year. We're concerned he won't retain what he learned over such a long gap in time. Should we be?


Eileen O'Brien writes:

There are many types of block schedules and it sounds as though your son's school has what is called a 4X4 schedule, where the school day is divided into four blocks with classes between 85–100 minutes, and students complete in one semester what would have taken them a full year in traditional schedules. For example, one study found that the mean ACT score in all subjects increased for those on a traditional 8-period schedule. The mean ACT scores for students in 8-block or A/B schedule schools varied from year to year; yet in 4X4 schools students actually had higher scores in the years prior to implementation but bounced back after the third year or implementation.


A school board member from Rochester, New York asks:

Our kindergarten program is currently half-day. We are in the process of evaluating the merits of full-day versus half-day. Please comment on the pros and cons of full versus half-day programs.


Eileen O'Brien writes:

Obviously you need to take into account your community's needs and expectations whenever you're considering a time change like this. For example, you might see a cost savings in transportation if you went the full-day route since you wouldn't have a mid-day run anymore. However, parents may not want their five-year-olds in school all day. With that said, the research does show that academic gains and social development gains are higher for those in full-day programs.


A school board member from Kansas City, Missouri area asks:

There is plenty of time now. Much of it is wasted. More teacher planning for multi-discipline lessons would make the time much more efficient. More individualization for the students would also make education a more efficient process.


Eileen O'Brien writes:

There are definitely many in the education community who agree with you, and obviously the need for professional development that helps teachers differentiate instruction is great.


A school board member from Highland, Indiana asks:

Would adding 15 minutes to the school day really make much of a difference?


Eileen O'Brien writes:

It's very hard to see how. I know districts get caught up in the need to make up time, but unless you're going to add a 30-minute block or more, how can you really add to instruction time meaningfully? One solution could be taking the 15 minutes from each day and combining it into one day that is used for planning or special projects.


A reporter from Washington, D.C. asks:

Is the more-time-in-school movement simply another strategy to improve student achievement? Or is it a movement of principle, based on the idea that the traditional school day and calendar are obsolete? A related question would be: Who needs more time in school? Do the students who are succeeding in the traditional school system need to be a part of this? Or is this primarily for low-achieving students? Thanks.


Eileen O'Brien writes:

We are always trying to improve student achievement, so yes, it is a response to that. But you're right, it also has to do with the mismatch between the traditional school calendar and today's needs. For example, at the high school level, the traditional day doesn't really match the needs of students who work or their working parents' schedules.

Students who are not on grade level in reading and math definitely need more time in school.


A parent from Iowa City, Iowa asks:

Is there research that substantiates that high school students perform better when school starts later in the day?


Eileen O'Brien writes:

There is good research out there on sleep patterns of adolescents that indicates that the school day should start later. Studies coming out of Minnesota have found better attendance rates and fewer discipline issues in districts where they have implemented later start times for high schools.


A superintendent from Beaver, Utah asks:

My experience with block schedules highlights the problem that teachers who traditionally have taught a 50 minute class period continue to teach and do not adapt their delivery. How do we go about having teachers change the way they teach?


Eileen O'Brien writes:

Many are concerned with this very notion—more time spent in lecture-driven classes will probably not help anyone. Yet scheduling changes can accommodate schools' being able to provide meaningful time for professional development that is ongoing. Some researchers have noted that block schedules only work if teachers have the tools to make a 90-minute class interesting and engaging.


A superintendent from Beaver, Utah asks:

How does a small, rural school district, steeped in tradition and unwillingness to change, move towards scheduling changes?


Eileen O'Brien writes:

I feel for you!!! One of the first things you need to do is get input from the community. Ask parents, students, and teachers about how the schedule could change and what these changes would mean for them. Your community members may have great ideas for you and they need to be part of the conversation from the get-go. I think one of the really interesting ideas is the four-day week. That seemed to work really well in rural areas.


A school board member from Gary, Indiana asks:

Please direct on how to make this happen when there is a strong union faction that is anti-change.

Eileen O'Brien writes:

Again, this is definitely one of the toughest issues to address—getting people on board. Hilary Pennington of the Center for American Progress noted that this is one of the reasons you find charter schools have a much easier time extending the school day or year. It's just accepted by teachers as they come in. Obviously creating a charter school is not an option for everyone, so district or school leadership needs to work with teachers to win them over to whatever change is being considered. Offering professional development on a regular basis as a kind of compensation may work too.


A public information officer from Madison, Wisconsin asks:

UW-Madison education professor Brian Bottge and colleagues John Gugerty, Ron Serlin, and Kyoung-Suk Moon recently compared the effects of traditional and 4x4 block schedules on the academic achievement of students with and without disabilities from a random selection of high schools. They found that partitioning the school day into shorter 60-minute periods or longer 90-minute periods did not seem to result in different academic achievement by the two group of students. http://www.wcer.wisc.edu/news/coverStories/block_scheduling.php

Does this agree with your assessment?

Paul Baker, Wisconsin Center for Education Research, University of Wisconsin-Madisonpbaker@wisc.edu


Eileen O'Brien

The research on block scheduling has been mixed, so this study adds to the knowledge base, especially since there are few studies dealing with students with disabilities. We probably need more research that focuses on the engagement of students, within these types of schedules, to show whether learning is taking place or whether we're just extending seat time. Perhaps UW-Madison can look into this?


A school board member from Whittier, Alaska asks:

What are the pros and cons of year around school class for at risk students?


Eileen O'Brien writes:

Year-round schooling or modified calendars are seen as effective approaches to address the summer learning loss that many at-risk students experience. While many year-round schools have also implemented intersessions—two-or three-week periods while the school is on break—the few research studies on the impact of these programs have had weak designs, so we know less about them.


A parent from Topeka, Kansas asks:

We keep talking about student achievement and the at-risk and students who are not succeeding in their classes. What about the other end of the spectrum—those that need a challenge? How do we not forget about them while working to help those that need it?


Eileen O'Brien writes:

Extending the school day or year can definitely provide opportunities for enrichment for those students at the other end of the spectrum. One of the high schools here in D.C. that has extended its day offers various dance and music classes as part of its extended day program. Again, the key is getting professional development for teachers so that they can provide differentiated instruction during the day for all students.


A school district administrator from Phoenix, Arizona asks:

I have always felt that the number of minutes of instruction takes a second to the quality of instruction provided to students. Student engagement must be maximized.


Eileen O'Brien writes:

We absolutely agree—the key is adding quality time, not just time.

Thank you for joining us today. There were many great questions and comments we could not get to. Look for an archived discussion of this chat on the Center web site. And please review the research packet for additional resources on this topic. Good bye!

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Home > Organizing a school > Making time > Archived chat: Time, instruction, and student learning


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