Collecting Data about School Time

As the foremost organization committed to ensuring that all students have sufficient learning time to achieve at high levels, NCTL takes seriously our responsibility to track the current national conditions of school time. This tracking takes place on a number of fronts. Periodically, we publish a report on both policy and practice trends around expanding school time, known as Learning Time in America. We also seek to identify those public schools (from among the roughly 100,000 in the United States) that have deliberately sought to expand their conventional calendar or establish themselves with a purposefully longer day (and/or year) than the norm. We then collate these so-called “expanded-time schools” into a database, accessible online for anyone to view.  Our latest count is over 2,000.

But our work is not focused only on those schools that have expanded time to better serve their students, but also on trends in school time, more generally. How long is the standard school day and year in the United States? Have these averages changed over the years? Is there a connection between schools with operational times longer than the norm and the population of students they serve? Only by describing the fuller picture of school time in the country can we grasp the significance of those schools that are deliberately breaking from these norms.

To develop this description, we rely on the one data source that is the most nationally representative sample on school operational times available, the Schools and Staffing Survey (known as SASS), conducted by the National Center on Education Statistics. This quadrennial survey of principals—there is a separate survey of teachers—asks school leaders to report, among other things, their daily start and end times (i.e., thus generating the length of the school day), as well as the annual number of student instructional days scheduled. These two data points, along with a few others, can then be analyzed to yield some information about what the school day and year look like in America.  Because this survey is taken every four years (since 1999), we can also get a glimpse of change over time.

In the latest analysis we’ve produced in partnership with our long-time colleague, Professor Tammy Kolbe of the University of Vermont, we found on these two basic questions that the length of the school day among district public schools has increased slightly over the last few years to 6.8 daily hours—and a bit more among charters—while the duration of the school year has remained consistent at 179 days.

Further, our analysis suggests that among schools that do increase learning time, the impacts on time spent on core academic curriculum are encouraging. In particular, we know that in schools that have more time overall, students have access to more time in specific classes, including social studies, science and the unified arts. This suggests that more time in the school day offers school leaders the opportunities to reinstate time for instruction in subjects beyond ELA and math.  We also have information on year-round schools, the demographic trends among expanded-time schools, and more, so I encourage all to read the full report.

While we are pleased to be able to produce this report on school time, I must confess to two regrets, however. The first has to do with the lagging nature of these numbers. The data are from the 2011 – 12 school year, and so we aren’t able to see yet the impact of the many large-scale expanded-time efforts taking place in recent years that we wrote about in the 2015 edition of Learning Time in America. We do not yet know, for example, if the fact that schools in some of the largest districts in America—Chicago, Boston, and New York City, for example—have lengthened their day and year has actually had an impact on national trends. We’ll have to wait a few more years until the SASS data is released by the U.S. Department of Education and we can do the subsequent analysis.

The second regret is even more fundamental. Not to put too fine a point on it, I wish we didn’t have to scour around to do this study. Instead, I wish that all schools would be required to report on their operational times (and instructional days) in much the same way they report their demographic data annually to the U.S. Department of Education through the Common Core of Data. If they had to do this kind of reporting, instead of us having to rely on a relatively small, albeit representative, sample, we could be analyzing data from every public school in the country to understand trends in school time. Such a study would be far more powerful and telling than what we have now. We’d be able to conduct much more nuanced analysis because our sample size would be sufficiently large—every school in America!—that we’d be able to disaggregate into small enough subgroups that we’d really begin to understand where efforts to expand time are having the largest impact.

Alas, such a possibility remains a researcher’s pipe dream. Perhaps as we continue to press our case for the need for more school time overall, the powers-that-be will come to understand that being far more deliberate about collecting data on school time itself is a necessary first step to leading practitioners and policymakers to appreciate how the standard can be changed, all with the aim of making public education better meet students’ needs and expectations.