Rethinking the standard school schedule

Race to Nowhere

I just read an interesting article on the Salon about how long work weeks produce lower quality work, and that it seems that about 40 hours a week is when the maximum productivity occurs. Of course if this applies to workers, then it presumably (or a similar number) applies to students as well.

So an obvious question is, how many hours are students in school?

In our school, students start school at 8:30am and are at school until 3:30pm with an hour for lunch. This means that they "work" about 6 hours each day*. If they have 2 hours of other "work" to do each day, then they would be working a productive 40 hour work. If they are working more than this, then their productivity drops and one would expect reduced gains for additional time worked, and tremendous drops in productivity after a few weeks of increased work load. What is often forgotten in these types of calculations though is all of the other work students do outside of school.

When students spend time doing adult-type work, like an after school job, or they participate in after school sports, or tutoring, or another school, they are adding onto the total amount of work they have done in a week. The most important work that they do, of course, is learning. This analogy between the 40 hour work week, and how many hours students "work’ at learning has an important caveat; 40 hours may be way too much "work" for students, especially younger ones.

You may notice at your own school that students productivity drops after a few weeks in school. In fact, I can remember this effect quite clearly as we talk about it nearly every year. According to the article, people can sustain slightly greater amount of effort for small periods of time, but each week of extended effort has an additional toll on productivity. So by this logic, the drop-off in student output that educators frequently notice may be due to the over-extension students have been through during the previous weeks.

A potential solution, proposed by a colleague of mine, is to take the month of August (or July) and expect students to come to school during this month, for 4 days a week. This would produce 16 – 18 additional days per year of school, which could be used to offset 16 – 18 long weekends during the rest of the school year. Students would have the same amount of over all time spent in school, but it would be more balanced through-out the year.

There is some support from parents for a change like this in education. The parents behind Race to Nowhere know about this issue intimately. They have been pushing for a shorter week for students for ages. Further, by reducing the length of the summer, students who do not participate in learning activities in the summer would be less likely to experience the ‘summer-time drop.’ Unfortunately, students who normally spend their summers doing highly engaging learning activities would lose some of this time. On the other hand, they would gain many more long weekends during which they could choose to enrich and extend themselves.

There are some organizations which are calling for an extended school day. Kipp Schools are a famous example of a school system where students spend much more time in school. The attempts from these organizations to extend the school day are misguided, at least if you believe the research on productivity versus hours worked. There is some research showing that the increased school year and increased school days at KIPP schools improve student results, but that research has been recently contested because KIPP schools tend to be more selective in their enrollment than the neighbouring schools.

We have to be careful to keep separate ‘seat time’ from productive learning time. Students who are more alert, more productive, and more engaged in what they are doing will learn more. Simply being in school longer, or working longer at school work, will not ensure that students learn more. We need to remember that the same principles that apply to our own well-being apply to students as well. There are philosophical reasons to be opposed to excessive amounts of work for students, it seems that there may also be some research to support these claims.

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8 Comments

  • I think that would be great for teachers as well. Your students would be more productive AND you would have the Friday to attend to the things that usually suck up any chance at life work balance on your evenings and weekends. Teachers could use the Friday ( or maybe alternate Fridays) as time for collaboration and planning with other teachers and for marking! Then my weekends could actually be my weekends, rather than 2 days of unpaid work – I would be more productive!

  • Rebecca wrote:

    Some of us in the PYP were talking about the idea of a longer school day (i.e. go until 5pm, which could see daily PE/music added to the schedule) in order to have 4 days of class. From our perspective, we felt far more relaxed and rested for the upcoming week after a long weekend. The students also seemed to be a bit less wired after a long weekend.

    Interesting post David!

  • @mrdavidhoang wrote:

    Insightful post David!

    I definitely see productivity (both students and teachers) drop as the weeks go by. With that said, the one thing I think would be interesting to consider is the kind of learning or productive ‘work’ that is going on within those hours. I think it’d be great to reflect on that as educators and decision makers because I would argue extracurricular activities (e.g., sports) present valuable opportunities for informal or experiential learning (‘important work’). In fact, if such activities happened before school or during lunch breaks I think students would be more alert, productive, and engaged.

  • Richard Ajabu wrote:

    Thanks, David. You might be interested in Heather’s related comment on the BC Education Plan website regarding her version of a 4-day school week. You might also be interested in the related comment I made on the same website regarding work/life balance and respect for personal boundaries. What do you think?

  • peter mare wrote:

    What about starting the day for intermediates up at 10 and finishing at 3:45 or 4, so that those growing bodies can sleep in to grow. I don’t think we can count on them going to be at 9 p.m. Am I right?

    I am all for a year-round schedule as postulated eloquently by Malcom Gladwell in his book “Outliers”!

    Do you think that text-to-speech programs (such as the one on many Apple comp.) and speech recognition software are going to make reading and writing disabilities a thing of the past?

    Your thoughts!

  • When you think about our current school and work schedules, they’re both ridiculously out-dated.

    School is based around the idea that kids will go home and work in the fields all summer. Ridiculous.

    Work is based around the idea that we will be sitting on an assembly line for as long as we can possibly stand each day (about 8 hours).

    Either way you slice it, it needs to change.

  • You know, David…I bet if you asked people why school needs to start in September and end in June, they would say, “Because that’s the way it’s always been”…seems to be the answer to many things having to do with schools.
    Love your posts,
    Derek

  • Hi, my name is Rosemary Catlin, and I am a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama where I major in Elementary Education. After this comment on your post, I will comment on one other post next week and will publish a summary of both posts on my own blog. I think a four day week would be a good idea for students. It will allow them to, in theory, use what would be the fifth day of school in a week for the work they have outside of class. Working, studying, or both too much in one week drains people. I think having the four day school week will help to keep the students actually learning, instead of being overloaded with information so I think it is a pretty good idea.

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