Making more than symbolic change in our schools

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Today’s lead story in the Globe relates the three years of “reform” by Sito Narcisse at English High:

An extraordinary three-quarters of English High’s teachers and administrators have quit or been let go during the past three years, school records show, as headmaster Sito Narcisse pushed through one controversial initiative after another — from school uniforms to single-sex classrooms to eliminating the grade “D,” forcing students to earn a “C” or fail. Teachers who did not go along with Narcisse’s approach were “not the right fit,” in his words, and he sent 38 of them packing, while dozens of others retired or resigned.

Given the continued drift in the school’s MCAS scores and observations of kids napping in class and worse, the Globe’s Andrea Estes and Jamie Vaznis seem on target in suggesting that all the energy and change the past three years to turnaround the school by English High’s Narcisse was for naught.

A cursory reading of the article suggests an additional takeaway. In their frustration with their inability to move the needle in urban district schools, many administrators, here and around the country, are operating under the justification: We had to do something.

And that’s almost always the first whiff of bad policy in the making.

For it often means “management had to do something” rather than schools have to do something. Given that schools = students + teachers + management + mission (and everything that flows from the mission), you can see the problem. Too often, the new policies lack coherence (connection to mission), an overarching connection to the teachers and the students, and a base in research. It’s not that Narcisse’s push to mandate uniforms was a bad idea, but was it connected to the mission, and if so why did he and the teachers not devise a way to gain traction on the policy and, if need be, enforce it? Same thing with male and female classes. If it was tied to the mission, it would have been implemented with training for teachers, outreach to parents, and follow-up to ensure it was working.

Without connection to a school ethos and mission, such changes not only run into opposition but they are little more than symbols for management. And the symbolic value, I can assure you, does not translate directly for the teachers and students.

Symbolic actions by management are hardly limited to Boston schools. Consider the recent expression of frustration by Rahm Emanuel and the superintendent (with the words: “We had to do something”!) as they called for “longer school days as key to achievement” in the Chicago district schools. Notwithstanding the confident proclamations of former Chicago superintendent and current US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the progress in Chicago has been extremely slow and such frustration is warranted.

But does Chicago have a problem because it only requires 5 and 3/4 hours of school a day? Is the problem, as the spokeperson for the Chicago Public Schools explained, that “[a]mong 10 of the largest cities in the U.S., our students have 22 percent less instructional time than their peers”?

Perhaps. Or is it much more than a question of instructional time in a day? Harsh?

As Mayor Emanuel begins his fight with the Chicago teachers union over lengthening the school day, he certainly appreciates reporters who pitch the battle in the following terms, as did the Reuters/MSNBC writer:

Many children in Chicago Public Schools will go from having the shortest school days in the nation to some of the longest this fall, a move that some experts say is needed to help push the struggling system ahead in student achievement.

The reporter continues:

… in Chicago, public school students have the shortest school day — 5 hours and 45 minutes — among the nation’s 50 largest districts, according the National Council on Teacher Quality. The national average is 6.7 hours in school. Under Chicago Mayor Rahm Emnauel’s plan, elementary schools will move to seven hours and most city high schools will extend their day to 7½ hours, although one day during the week would be shorter by 75 minutes.

But I am not convinced the facts are on the side of lengthening the school day if the rest of the school activities, governance, expectations/accountability, and mission are left as is. The problems with urban district schools go way beyond, and in fact, trump extended learning time (ELT). As such, ELT is a punt every bit as symbolic and disconnected from coherent reform as the well-intentioned changes advanced by Mr. Narcisse.

I say this not to diminish the importance of time on task. The first opinion piece I ever wrote for a newspaper, way back in 1989, was on the need to extend the school year in the United States. After working as a consultant on how to harmonize high school graduation and college entrance requirements across European countries, I wrote what many feel intuitively: How can we raise our students’ achievement levels if they are going to public school 180 days a year (maximum), when some are going to school 213 (Germany) or even 243 days (Japan) a year.

I still think extending the year for schools that are not making the grade can be important due to the research-verified loss of concept knowledge that occurs over the summer vacation, especially in urban districts.

But even with that in mind, it is important not to overstate the time-difference between the US and other countries as a core reason for our falling behind on international assessments.

Consider Aaron Benavot’s 2005 UNESCO report, “A global study of intended instructional time and official school curricula, 1980-2000”, which has a number of interesting takeaways, the most relevant one being that the US is pretty much in line with the rest of the world in terms of annual hours of required instruction.

The Reuters article on Rahm Emanuel’s standoff with the Chicago teachers union points to data assembled by the The Center for Public Education, an initiative of the National School Boards Association (NSBA), with primary backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, ARAMARK Education, Apple, Inc., Pearson Education, Sodexo School Services, The Coca-Cola Foundation, ACT, Inc., Cisco Systems, Inc., The College Board, Microsoft Corporation, and Scholastic, Inc., State Farm Insurance (a big national standards backer) and a long list of state school board associations (Texas’ in a leadership position) for laying out in summary form the facts on instructional time in the US:

According to the OECD, the hours of compulsory instruction per year in these countries range from 608 hours in Finland (a top performer) to 926 hours in France (average) at the elementary level, compared to the over 900 hours required in California, New York, Texas, and Massachusetts. Of particular note, no state requires as few hours as Finland, even though Finland scores near the top of nearly every international assessment. As a matter of fact, Vermont – a high-performing state7 — requires the fewest number of hours (700 hours) for its elementary students (grades 1-2) than any other state, and it still requires more than Finland. Vermont’s requirement is also more than the 612 hours high-achieving Korea requires of its early elementary students. Moreover, all but 5 states require more hours of instruction at the early elementary school level than the OECD countries average of 759 hours.

At the middle school level, total hours of instruction range from 777 hours in Finland (a top performer) to 1001 in Italy (an average performer). Three of our 5 large states, New York (990 hours), Texas (1,260 hours), and Massachusetts (990 hours) would rank near the top of all industrialized nations in number of hours required. California and Florida would rank near the middle at 900 hours but still above the OECD average of 886 hours. It should be noted that even at the middle school level, countries like Japan and Korea require fewer hours (868 and 867 respectively) than most U.S. states. So by the 8th grade, students in most U.S. states have been required to receive more hours of instruction than students in most industrialized countries, including high-performing Finland, Japan, and Korea.

In most countries, there is a significant increase in the time students are required to be in school at the high school level. In the U.S., most states require the same number of hours in high school as in middle school. Just as they did at middle school level, Finland (856 hours) and Italy (1,089 hours) required the fewest and most hours of instruction respectively. Italy’s 1,089 hours surpasses all but 2 out of our 5 selected states. Texas requires 1,260 hours of instruction at the high school level, while California requires 1,080 hours. Korea requires 1,020 hours of instruction at the high school level. Nearly half (22) the states require more instructional hours than Korea. Moreover, the vast majority of states (42) require more hours of instruction than the OECD average of 902 hours. Again, there’s no evidence that students in other countries are required to receive more instruction than students in the United States.

Assuming 180 days of school at 5.75 hours a day, the average Chicago student is receiving 1,035 hours of instruction in a year. Is it enough given the student needs in Chicago?

It may not be. But I am not at all convinced that adding an hour a day to the current system of district schools is a solution. Why? First, the above CPE international data show very clearly that there is no correlation between student performance and time in school. Second, the real question is what you do with the time, the school culture and the expectation set for students so that they are focused during their time on task. Which is why I chafe at this statement from Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time and Learning (located here in Boston and the principal advocate for extended learning time).

“More districts are now looking to break free of the standard school schedule because there are too many students who are not reaching higher academic standards…”

The fact is that in Massachusetts, where the $13-14 million we are spending annually to support extended learning time in a couple of dozen schools has had little effect, as repeated reports from Abt Associates have demonstrated.

The idea of “breaking free of the standard school schedule” is of course a good one, especially as we see expansion of online resources and the success of charter public schools, which have greater autonomy in terms of teacher recruitment, ethos, and management but with a higher level of accountability.

But while they are both public schools, charters differ greatly from districts schools. Charter public schools have greater flexibility, a greater mission focus (that is, a focus on academic performance and the specific school ethos) and a higher level of accountability. So an added hour in a charter is different from an hour in a district school—especially one that has not been reconstituted from the ground up.

That’s why when NCTL head Davis suggests that the Louisiana Recovery District is a good example of how extended learning time can be effective, she is off the mark. It’s not a broad-based strategy that will work. Where it can be helpful is in places like Lawrence, where the receiver is looking to reconstitute specific schools, giving them broad autonomy and in fact installing charter entrepreneurs to run the schools.

ELT supporters should not beef up their case by association with schools that are markedly different from the district schools they believe they can impact by adding hours of instructional time.

Improving schools is a lot harder than simply expanding time. The way forward on ELT is to:

  1. recognize the limits of ELT as a broad-based policy and restrict expansions of the school day to schools undergoing full reconstitution;
  2. study why ELT worked in a handful of schools and why it failed to raise student achievement in the majority of schools in Massachusetts where it was tried; and
  3. give greater consideration to lengthening the school year in target schools, where there is research clearly tells us that the loss of concept knowledge over the summer vacation can be impacted by a longer school year.

The history of district-driven reforms is littered with symbolic actions, as we have seen at English High. Few of these reforms have actually worked. Time is too important to waste — and we should stop treating it, too, like a symbol.

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.