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Closing the learning-time gap

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by James H. Lytle

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Amid all the debate about addressing the achievement gap, one obvious explanation has escaped attention: the amount of time that kids from different backgrounds spend engaged in school or school-related activities.

Having worked in or observed both public and private schools -- including inner-city, magnet, suburban, independent, and boarding schools -- I’ve concluded that there is a striking and straightforward explanation for why kids in the inner city do relatively well through 3rd grade before starting to fall by the wayside. They are not getting nearly enough time in structured learning environments.

Using high school as the point of comparison, let's see how learning time varies among the different types of schools.

Inner-city public schools
The average daily attendance for inner-city high school students is 70 to 75 percent. That’s less than four out of every five school days attended per week. Consider, also, that the school day is roughly six hours long and that most students don't take part in extracurricular activities. Homework, if it is assigned, if it gets done, happens in-class or in the next class, but not at home. City kids consider time outside of school their own time -- whether for jobs, family responsibilities, or hanging out, school-related responsibilities should not intrude.

Time spent on school/learning per week: 25 hours

Suburban schools
Most suburban kids come to school every day, a day that lasts six to seven hours. Adding one to two hours of homework each night, the amount of time  a suburban student spends in school-related activity approaches 50 hours a week. Those students involved in sports or other extracurricular activities are likely to spend an additional 10 to 20 hours engaged with school.

Time spent on school/learning per week: 45 to 65 hours

Private schools
At independent day schools (private schools) students are rarely absent, extensive homework is a given, and afterschool activities are required. It’s not unusual for there to be games, plays, and other activities on weekends. School time can run 10 hours long, say 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with two to three hours of homework every night. 

Time spent on school/learning per week: 60 to 70 or more hours

Boarding school
Boarding school is a true 24/7 school environment. Not only are there long instructional days and required extracurricular activities, but there is often supervised study in the evenings. Faculty join students at meals. There may be required chapel services. Dormitories have faculty residents. In a sense, boarding schools are total institutions where a student lives a controlled life, all day, every day. For that reason, boarding schools can have an enormous impact, positive or negative.

Time spent on school/learning per week: 168 hours

​This basic analysis tells us that inner-city kids are engaged in learning for about half the amount of time that suburban students are, and about a third of the time of private school students. Factor in the hours that suburban and independent school kids may attend summer camp, play on a traveling sports team, take music lessons, or learn by surfing the Internet, and the learning-time inequity only worsens.

But it isn’t only time that's lost. Relating to adults in different settings -- in the classroom, on athletic fields, the debate team, and at the dining table -- counts as learning. High school reformers cite personalization, mentors, and sponsors as key factors in increasing high school completion rates. To ensure those connections, suburban, independent, and boarding schools consistently place students in contact with concerned adults who may become their coaches and advocates. In urban high schools, student motivation comes by threat of failing high-stakes exit tests.

The process of being socialized into a professional work routine, while still in school, also makes a difference. A fledgling lawyer or investment banker is expected to commit 80 to 100 work hours to the firm; the expectation for medical students and residents is similar. On the other hand, for clerks at Walmart or bus drivers, anything above 35 to 40 hours a week constitutes overtime.

By the time they’ve finished high school, kids at independent schools have already accepted the fact that they might commit upwards of 90 weekly hours on the job. That kind of commitment is unimaginable to kids at urban high schools. They have, unknowingly, been prepared for the hourly workforce.

The kids who need the most get the least when it comes to the amount of time spent learning. We can tighten standards and raise expectations all we want, enriching the curriculum and adding high-stakes assessments for frosting. But the truth is that, before anything else, closing the achievement gap requires time. For most urban high school students, the time isn’t there.

James H. Lytle is a practice professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and a former urban principal and superintendent.

The opinons expressed are solely those of the author.

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