Minnesota requires fewer classroom hours than other states. Does it matter?
Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, May 25, 2013 – Last summer, school Superintendents Jane Berenz and Jay Haugen had a tough idea to sell to parents.
As educators across the nation pushed for students to spend more time in school, Berenz and Haugen had to convince parents that less time would be beneficial — even though Minnesota trails many states in time students are required to spend with a teacher.
Their sales pitch was that the quality of instructional time is more important for students than the quantity. Farmington, the district Haugen leads, gave up two school days and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, Berenz’s district, cut five to give teachers more time to gather and analyze data about their students.
Before the start of school, teachers spent one-on-one time with elementary students collecting information about their skills. That data would be used throughout the year to improve teachers’ instruction.
It was a worthwhile sacrifice for Berenz and part of a district initiative to tailor instruction to each student.
“I’m a firm believer in investing in teachers and their training,” Berenz said. “We hold this time very dear to us.”
CLASS TIME VARIES
Minnesota trails many states in the amount of instructional time students receive. Thirty states require 180 or more students-teacher contact days, according to data gathered by the Education Commission of the States and the National Center on Time & Learning.
The state measures class time in hours, requiring a minimum of 935 hours for elementary and 1,020 for middle- and high-school students. If a typical school day is six hours, that translates into 156 elementary and 170 middle- and high-school days.
Wisconsin requires 100 more hours of instruction time for students.
Dig a little deeper into states’ class time requirements and it’s clear that not all school days are created equal. Some states, such as Missouri, consider a full school day to be just four hours; Texas requires seven hours, including lunch and recess.
Despite states’ varying definitions, a growing number of parents and educators acknowledge the benefit of more instructional time.
A national survey by the National Center on Time & Learning found 75 percent of respondents believed more class time would better prepare students for the workforce. Nearly 80 percent agreed that high-poverty schools would benefit from a longer school day or year.
But it’s hard to show a direct link between more class time and improved achievement.
States that perform well academically, such as Massachusetts or Minnesota, spend less time in class than lower performers such as Louisiana or Nebraska.
In Finland, which tops international tests comparing student achievement, students spend hundreds of hours fewer in the classroom than do students in Minnesota.
“Does the length of the school year tie to performance? It’s hard to say,” said Kathy Christie, spokeswoman for the Education Commission of the States. “There really is no silver bullet. States that are performing well are doing many things in the right way.”
Christie said data-driven instructional programs such as those Farmington and Rosemount are trying are examples of how quality can trump quantity, if done correctly.
“Quality instructional time matters,” Christie said. “But the keyword is ‘quality.’ Just adding time doesn’t get you much bang for your buck.”
Only time will tell whether Farmington and Rosemount’s tradeoffs will improve achievement. Leaders in both districts hope to identify and help struggling students sooner, avoiding costlier interventions down the road.
Parents also are awaiting the results.
Traci Cywinski, who has two daughters at Farmington’s North Trail Elementary School, said the time with teachers before school began helped her children transition into the academic year.
“It tells them the teacher has time for them,” Cywinski said. “When school starts, they can really hit the ground running.”
Kara McGowan, who has a son at Oak Ridge Elementary School in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, is supportive of the approach but still needs to be convinced of the need to give up five instructional days. She wants proof the time is well spent.
“If you’re taking five days away from my kid, I want a report,” McGowan said. “I want to know what you found.”
Kathy Saltzman, Minnesota director for StudentsFirst, a national education-reform advocate, agrees with McGowan. Program accountability and showing results are essential if students are going to lose class time for teacher training, Saltzman said.
“School districts need to show how they used that extra time and what results it yielded,” she said.
TIME IS EXPENSIVE
The Legislature just passed an education spending bill to pump $240 million in new funding into K-12 schools. The measure includes $134 million for voluntary, free all-day kindergarten, something many educators believe will help close Minnesota’s persistent gap in the achievement of white and affluent students and their poor and minority counterparts.
State Rep. Kelby Woodard, a Belle Plaine Republican on the House Education Finance Committee, said he would rather give districts freedom to spend the additional money on programs of their choice.
“Other states have all-day kindergarten and are still struggling,” he said. “We are acting like a state school board and dictating where the money should go.”
Outside of longer days for kindergartners, don’t expect school districts to use other funding increases to lengthen the school day or year.
Even if they wanted to, it wouldn’t go far. In Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan schools, the state’s fourth-largest district, adding just one school day would cost $1 million.
“The reality is, time costs money,” said Charlene Briner, chief of staff for state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. “More hours of instruction is important for students. When you have limited resources, it’s important how you strategically structure that time.”
State officials have given districts flexibility to ensure they can use funding wisely, Briner said. For example, a number of districts have moved to four-day school weeks to save money.
Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, which represents more than 70,000 educators, said more freedom from state and federal mandates would give teachers and students extra time to focus on learning.
“We spend so much time on test prep and high-stakes testing, we lose instruction,” Dooher said. “There are so many restrictions, it limits the ability of educators to fashion lessons to students’ needs.”
Dooher said his members would be open to more class time or a modified school calendar but acknowledges that it would be costly.
“You are going to get what you pay for,” Dooher said.
Money aside, other pressures make it tough to extend students’ class time.
Amy Walstien, director of education and workforce development policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said her group recognizes the benefit of more instruction time but hasn’t taken a position because longer school days or years often collide with workforce needs. Minnesota is one of a handful of states that prohibit most schools from starting before Labor Day.
“There has to be a balance,” Walstien said, “and we haven’t found it yet.”
Superintendents such as Berenz are trying to find that same balance.
“I’d like to have both,” Berenz said. “I’m going to invest in teachers’ professional development and fight for as much time as I can get.”