Looking for Innovation? Consider the School Schedule

Looking for Innovation? Consider the School Schedule

In a blog post for the online site Edutopia, New York City teacher Jose Vilson described serving on an education policy panel in Maryland with several other teachers. Along the way, Vilson and the other panelists were asked what a school of their own design would look like. Vilson said he had a “few models to draw from,” but came around to a simple yet challenging concept: “If I started a school right now, I would restructure school time nationwide.”

By “restructure school time,” Vilson was referring to the amount of time teachers in the United States spend face-to-face with their students. Citing a 2014 report from a global policy hub, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Vilson noted that teachers in this country typically spend close to 1,200 hours per year with their students. In comparison, teachers in the 35 other countries included in the organization’s report—including Finland, Japan, and Turkey—spend, on average, just under 800 hours in front of their students. (It should be noted that many of these countries have some of the world’s most highly regarded public school systems.)

Vilson’s point was not just that a redesigned school should give teachers more time off, he also articulated a vision of teachers having more time to lesson-plan and confer with students individually during the school day. He advocated for a school system in which teachers teach less but collaborate more, sharing information with peers about “pedagogical practices and standards.” The goal? For teachers to have the time to “thoughtfully adapt their lessons and units to the students in front of them.”

Vilson’s desire for less teaching time and more planning and prep time is echoed in a 2017 blog post from the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Titled “Reimagining School Schedules” and written by center staffers Meg Benner and Lisette Partelow, the piece zeroes in on the idea that teachers in the U.S. feel “squeezed” by a lack of collaboration, observation, and planning time. In an era of widespread teacher shortages, Benner and Partelow argue that giving teachers more time to observe and learn from one another will cut down on the sometimes isolating nature of teaching and could “increase the likelihood of teacher retention.”

But, as Vilson noted, “much of how we do schooling has been ingrained in our culture,” so a structural change to the school day or teachers' work time may be hard to realize. However, Benner and Partelow did some heavy lifting by not only bringing up the issue of how much time teachers spend in front of students, but also by providing a detailed list of innovative school schedules. Their list includes both charter and traditional public schools in a variety of settings, and takes a look at each school's cost and student achievement outcomes.

For example, Benner and Partelow focus on Lawrence, Massachusetts-based Guilmette Elementary School, noting that the school has “built in common planning time by extending the school day and strategically aligning grade team schedules.” In addition, students spend two hours in “high-quality enrichment programming” every Friday, while teachers pursue opportunities for “targeted intervention” with individual students. These schedule adjustments boosted math and literacy rates for the school, but came at a “significant cost” to the district’s budget.

Benner and Partelow’s post also detailed “model schedules” provided by elementary and high school teachers. These schedules included blocks of time set aside for team planning, as well as more small-group opportunities to connect with students. While arguing for reworked school days, the writers added a cautionary note: “Innovative school schedules should meet diverse student needs and ensure that all teachers are primed to deliver engaging, rigorous content.” Vilson, too, emphasized that using time more effectively should be structured so that “all folks within our school system learn, not just the students.”

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