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Education Report: When students miss class time, learning suffers

Sunday, December 28, 2008
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A series of winter storms in 2003 closed schools in Maryland for several days. University researcher — and a parent — Dave E. Marcotte started wondering if all those days of lost learning would affect students’ test performance. The results of his investigation might surprise you — or maybe not.

Marcotte, with fellow U. of Maryland researcher Steven W. Hermelt, reviewed 20 years of state reading and mathematics test data to determine if missed school days due to snow days, teacher strikes or other unscheduled interruptions affected students’ scores. They did.

They found, according to an article in Education Week, that “in a year with five lost school days, the number of third-graders who met state proficiency targets was 3 percent lower than in years with no school closings.” In brief, student time on task is important to learning.

Every day your child is out of school, for whatever reason, his or her learning achievement suffers.

Just being in school, however, is only the starting point for determining time on task. “Since the 1970s, researchers have pointed out a difference between the amount of time that schools allocate for learning, the amount of time during which students are engaged in learning, and actual learning time,” the Education Week article reveals.

Academic year

The amount of time schools allocate for learning is the academic year, the time designated for students to be in school. This is the typical school calendar amounting to 186 days, give or take a day or two depending on the state in which you live. With few exceptions, all schools in the state must meet the state-mandated number of days.

The amount of time students are engaged in learning is more variable.

The variable factor is the teacher. The teacher in some classrooms spends a majority of the time explaining, demonstrating, or doing — while students watch. In other classrooms, students are more involved for more of the period.

The final time-on-task element, the amount of time during which students are engaged in learning, occurs during such activities as lab experiences, band practice, supervised study, or homework. This, as you might imagine, is some of the more valuable learning time for students.

So how can missing three or four days of school be that important to their learning?

For one thing, missed instruction due to unscheduled school closings affects all students. To make up for the lost time, teachers may hurry instruction or simply skip some lessons.

When students miss school due to illness or other reasons, some will fill in the missed instruction on their own, some will stumble but recover and, some, unfortunately, will stumble, falter and be confused for the remainder of that unit. Regardless, learning suffers.

Learning by doing is a staple of those who disdain “book learning” from practical, hands-on experience. But learning from experience takes time.

So, regardless of how you approach the topic, time is important to learning.

KIPP example

The Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, schools provide us with one example. The Education Week article summarized this program by telling us that students in KIPP schools “spend 62 percent more time in school than peers in regular school.”

Further, “Students also attend half-day classes on Saturdays twice a month and then go to school two to three weeks longer in the summer.”

KIPP schools are generally charter schools in low-income neighborhoods, so they are free to change some things that might not be tolerated in other public schools.

Nevertheless, they apparently feel that “the amount of time that schools allocate for learning, the amount of time during which students are engaged in learning, and actual learning time” are important enough to be changed.

If we are serious about changing testing outcomes and student learning, we may need to think about changing the amount of time students spend in learning activities.

We can start by eliminating as many classroom disruptions as possible.

You can read the entire Education Week article at http://www.edweek.org/ew/collections/nation-at-risk-25-years/index.html.

Final column

This is my final Report Card on Education column. I want to thank John Hume, Gazette publisher, for meeting with me 30 years ago and agreeing to take a chance on a young man with a new doctorate and an idea about an education column to help people better understand their schools. I trust my column has done that.

I also want to thank those who have written me with ideas, with questions and with encouragement.

I know some readers have sent my column to friends, grown children and other relatives around the county. I know also that some of my columns ended up on the refrigerator as reminders for kids, and on a few bulletin boards at school.

Thank you for those votes of confidence and thank you all for letting me share my thoughts on education with you.

Charles Cummins, Ed.D., is a retired school administrator. Send questions to him at: cacummins818@gmail.com.

 
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