Crisis: How American Schools Waste Instructional Time

Over the years, American education has been compared to education around the world, and each time, the American education system has come up lacking. Recent reports such as PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) show the United States ranks 19th in reading, 29th in mathematics, and 22nd in science behind China, Korea, Japan, Switzerland, Finland, Canada, Germany and Poland to name just a few.  Critics of American education blame poorly prepared teachers, content-incompetent teachers and poor classroom instruction.  Teachers on the other hand say American students are performing poorly on international assessments due to inadequate resources; lack of family, public, and political commitment to education in America; and teacher salaries that are too low to entice and keep quality teachers in the classroom.  In truth, both the critics and teachers are making legitimate points, but the biggest truth is that American students are more likely to be short changed instructionally than their counterparts in higher performing countries where education is a government and public priority.  The biggest issue confronting American education is not quality teachers or funding, but rather the biggest issue in American education is compromised instruction.  There are many good teachers in America who do an excellent job teaching, but there are often so many distractions in the school day or school year that even the good teachers often find focusing themselves and their students on learning to be an almost impossible task.  These distractions are sometimes teacher generated, sometimes administrator generated, sometimes parent generated, and sometimes even society or community generated. I am talking about distractions that take away from the most important part of the school day – INSTRUCTION.  If educators, parents, the public and politicians truly want to see American students start closing the achievement gap that currently exists between America and high achieving nations, they must make protecting classroom instruction a priority, and start looking for reasons to teach rather than looking, accepting, or being complacent about reasons not to teach.

Why send children to school if they do not receive the instruction they need in the classroom?  I understand and agree that there are other important aspects of school such as celebrations, assemblies, pep rallies, etc., but those activities should be byproducts of instruction and not replacements for instruction.  It is absurd to assign students 180 days of instruction if they receive as little as a third of that number.  I mean absurd not in the sense that children do not need 180 days of instruction, but that it is ludicrous to believe with all the distractions in an American school day that students actually receive anywhere near 180 days of instruction.  In American schools, instruction often takes a back seat to student and teacher absenteeism, daily classroom interruptions, celebrations, reward days, classroom movie time and fund raising. Teachers may cry foul, but anyone who has been in education knows this is true.  Over the years, in the name of permissiveness, celebrations, special programs, fund raising, state testing and sensitivity, we have short changed the very reason we have school – daily instruction that leads to children learning.  If the number of interruptions to classroom instruction were documented over any given school year, it is likely that in many classes children are getting as little as 12% of the instructional time they should be receiving.  How can America realistically expect to compete globally when its children are deprived of as much as 88% of their education?  Most people will find this hard to believe, especially teachers, but look at the chart below and judge for yourself.

180 Instructional Days of Instruction or is There?

(1) There may be some variations between an elementary school and a high school. However, the number of days of lost instruction time tends to be relatively the same across schools.

(2) Non-instructional day = no focused instruction or a substitute teacher is in the classroom.

180 Days for Instruction Reason for Lost Days of Instruction Days for Instruction Remaining
– 45 days Days used for state test review and testing as estimated by Mississippi Association of State Superintendents That leaves . . . .135 days for instruction
–   1 day Last day of school is pure waste of time That leaves . . . .134 days for instruction
– 16 days Unit Tests (average 1 every 2 weeks) – Few teachers begin new instruction on Unit Test days even after the test. That leaves . . . .118 days for instruction
– 16 days Review days before unit tests. That leaves . . . .102 days for instruction
–   8 days Final exams – Schools often set aside two days each nine weeks for final exams, so students do not have to take all their exams on the same day. This results in no instruction during either of these days. That leaves . . . . 94 days for instruction
– 16 days Reviewing for final nine weeks exams. [Some schools have eliminated 9 weeks exams, which makes not only to protect instructional time, but because the vast majority of 9 weeks exams have never been comprehensive, the test is little more than a unit test and it serves little if any overall comprehension purpose. Basically it is a means of inflating 9 weeks grades.] That leaves . . . . 78 days for instruction
–   2 days Movie days for relaxing and winding down after state test days. That leaves . . . . 76 days for instruction
–   1 day After all state tests are completed, there is a school wide celebration with movies, games on the playground or football field, and absolutely no instruction. [Not a particularly bad idea if not for all the other missed instructional time.] That leaves . . . .   75 days for instruction
–   1 day Monday after homecoming – Time used to share homecoming memories and relax from the hectic weekend. That leaves . . . . 74 days for instruction
–   1 day Monday after prom – Time used to share prom memories and relax from the hectic weekend. That leaves . . . . 73 days for instruction
–   1 day Day before Thanksgiving break – Students are too excited to test and there is little reason to start something new, so they relax and get mentally ready for the first big holiday of the school year. That leaves . . . . 72 days for instruction
–   1 day 1st day back after Thanksgiving break – Time used to share Thanksgiving memories and relax from the hectic week. That leaves . . . . 71 days for instruction
–   1 day Day before Christmas Holidays – Maybe some short exams (most students are exempt if exemptions are allowed), class parties (sanctioned or not), students are so excited there is little reason to start something new, so relax and get mentally ready for the best holiday of the year. Besides many parents will allow their child to stay home and begin the holidays early.  Also, day before Christmas break is a half day, which makes instructional difficult at best. That leaves . . . . 70 days for instruction
–   1 day 1st day back after Christmas holidays – Time used to share Christmas holiday memories and what Santa left under the tree. That leaves . . . . 69 days for instruction
–   1 day 1st day back after Spring break – Time used to share Spring break memories and relax from a week of laying out in the sun by the lake or on the beach. That leaves . . . . 68 days for instruction
–   1 day Day before Easter break – Students are too excited to work.  Many students will be absent since families start the holiday early. That leaves . . . . 67 days for instruction
–   1 day 1st day back after Easter break – Time used to share Easter memories and to mentally get ready for the long haul to Summer break. That leaves  . . . . 66 days for instruction
–   1 day Yearbooks are IN! Students spend day signing yearbooks.   One of those non-instructional days that would not be so bad if not for all the other instructional time missed. That leaves . . . . 65 days for instruction
–   4 days Teacher stress days – teachers are human and sometimes, they are just not mentally prepared to teach, so busy work is assigned. That leaves . . . . 61 days for instruction
–  3 days Teacher professional development days – A substitute teacher is in the classroom. That leaves . . . . 58 days for instruction
–   4 days Teacher absent for personal business – A substitute teacher is in the classroom. That leaves . . . . 54 days for instruction
–   2 days Teacher absent due to family illness – A substitute teacher is in the classroom. That leaves . . . . 52 days for instruction
–   4 days Teacher absent due to personal illness – A substitute teacher is in the classroom. That leaves . . . . 48 days for instruction
–   1 day Teacher absent for jury duty, military etc. – A substitute teacher is in the classroom. That leaves . . . . 47 days for instruction
–   2 days Field trips – Field trips are great for the class conducting the field trip, but the fact remains students are missing instruction in other classes. This would not be so bad if not for all the instructional time missed. That leaves . . . . 45 days for instruction
–   3 days Cumulative instructional time missed for pep rallies, special programs, etc. Again, this would not be so bad if not for all the other instructional time missed. That leaves . . . . 42 days for instruction
–   7 days Student absenteeism/checkouts/check-ins That leaves . . . . 35 days for instruction
–   2 days Showing a full movie in classroom takes at least two days – Instructionally this is not a sound practice – showing a few clips from a movie to support instruction makes much more sense. That leaves . . . . 33 days for instruction
–   4 days Regardless of the reason, pulling students from class for counseling, tutoring, drug testing, inclusion services, parent conferences, etc. results in lost instructional time in the classroom.   Once again, this would not be so bad if not for all the other instructional time missed. That leaves . . . . 29 days for instruction
–   1 day End of Year parties/celebrations That leaves . . . . 28 days for instruction
–   2 days Cumulative time wasted for daily roll call each day– That leaves . . . . 26 days for instruction
–   4 days Cumulative time wasted allowing students to stand at door, sit quietly, or talk quietly the last ten minutes of class. That leaves . . . . 22 days for instruction
–   1 day Cumulative time wasted due to office inter-com interruptions. That leaves . . . . 21 days for instruction

21 FULL DAYS OF INSTRUCTION!  That is absolutely insane!  Of course, there are teachers who are masters at keeping their students focused even through all the distractions, but even in those classes there is often a lot of missed instructional time that the teacher has no control over such as student absenteeism, student check outs, late student check ins, inter com interruptions, students pulled out in the middle of class, students missing class due to field trips in other classes, students leaving early for extra-curricular activities, teacher illness, etc.  There are too many days when an off the street substitute teacher is in the classroom, and too many days when a substitute teacher could easily replace a higher paid teacher who is wasting instructional time by taking two or more days to show a movie, allowing unengaged down time in the classroom, or assigning busy work or any of the other instructional time wasters listed in the chart above.  Of course, principals and assistant principals are just as guilty of interrupting instructional time by over use of the inter-com and pulling students out of academic classes in the middle of class (Administrators should not pull students from class unless it is a discipline issue that must be handled immediately).

The biggest problem in education is not poor teachers, but rather, missed or wasted instructional opportunities in the classroom!  Teachers and school administrators must accept their share of the blame, but parents (student absenteeism, late check-ins, early checkouts) and American society (attitude that the main purpose for school is to have a good time and build fun memories) must wake up and realize they are just as much a part of the problem.  Over the past thirty years, feeling good about school has become more important than what is learned in school.

The amount of missed/wasted instructional time that has been allowed to infiltrate American classrooms is troubling.  The chart above may be a bit of a stretch (hopefully), but even if our students are receiving 90 days of instruction each year they are still being short changed.  Ninety days of instruction per year for thirteen years (K – 12) is instructionally equivalent to a 6th grade education.  What are American graduates supposed to do for the seven years of knowledge they have been denied – pick it up through osmosis?  Protecting instructional time is everybody’s responsibility including teachers, administrators, parents, and American society as a whole.  Until classroom instruction is once again a priority  in American schools, American students will continue to trail the rest of the world academically.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating the accomplishments of students, providing special programs to expand student learning opportunities, conducting field trips to help students relate classroom learning to the real world, or even taking time to let students share with their classmates what is happening in their world outside school.  As long as these activities are byproducts of learning supported by relevant instruction, they are important, but when they become a means to circumvent or take a break from instruction and learning, their educational purpose ceases.  Educators have 180 days each year to make an academic difference in the lives of their students, and they cannot afford to lose any of those days.

JL

©Jack Linton, March 29, 2015

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2 thoughts on “Crisis: How American Schools Waste Instructional Time

  1. Anonymous

    Your calculations are flawed on the field trips, Jack. Each student now clocks in an average of 8 days in field trips, competitions, and auditions a year; a good number miss 14 or more. Kind of hard to have any continuity with all that going on. Sigh.

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    1. jlinton77 Post author

      I would not argue your point at all. I believe field trips have a place in education, but it is essential to track students on field trips for number of field trips attended and instructional merit, and that is not always easy. Field trips become an even bigger problem when you add such things as competitions and auditions as you mention. Auditions or tryouts should never be allowed during the school day, and the only time students should miss classes for competitions is when out of state travel or extra long in state travel is necessary due to state playoffs. It is not necessary to take students out of school so they can stop somewhere to eat and relax before a 7:00 p.m. ball game. Most meals in school cafeterias are much healthier than anywhere the coach can take players to eat. Also, if 16 and 17 year kids need to have six hours of rest before they play a game that night, maybe another coach is needed who can get the kids in better shape. Of course, for special competitions such as playoffs some exceptions can be made unless the exceptions become excessive. Educators need to remember school districts spend millions of dollars to build football fields, basketball gyms, tracks, baseball fields, softball fields and performing arts centers with lights for one main reason – to make it unnecessary to take kids out of school early.

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