A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Prisoners of Time: Research - September 1994

Chapter One - Reclaim the Academic Day

One of the most startling findings of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning (hereafter referred to as the "Commission") is that students in many other industrial democracies are expected to take twice as much instruction in core academic areas during high school as students in the United States. This finding, along with other research information, led the Commission to recommend that schools provide additional academic time by reclaiming the school day for academic instruction.

What does it mean to "reclaim the academic day"? Logistically, it means providing at least 5.5 hours of core academic instructional time daily. That time is to be devoted exclusively to the core academic subjects: English and language arts, history, mathematics, science, civics, geography, the arts, and foreign languages. Other worthwhile activities, such as remediation and enrichment activities, athletics, extracurricular activities, study halls, and health and social services are to be accommodated before or after the core academic school day.

Philosophically, reclaiming the academic day means providing all students with the opportunity to develop a strong foundation for their lives as workers, citizens, and cultivated individuals. It means developing skills, understanding, and perspectives which can be applied in all aspects of one's life. It means learning how to think and act intelligently in a complex world.

The academic day must be reclaimed for all students, not just the college bound. In a modern economy and a democratic society, it is just as important for students who have usually been placed in vocational or general programs to develop knowledge and thinking skills through a study of the core subjects as it is for students who have traditionally followed college preparatory programs.

German "vocational" programs provide one illustration of how a reclaimed academic day would look for the non-college bound student. German students in these programs engage in rigorous study of the core subjects recommended by the Commission. German students interested in auto-mechanics, for example, learn sophisticated mathematics and science. They study the theoretical and technical aspects of auto-mechanics as well as learn a foreign language, which often is used to decipher complex technical manuals written in other languages.

This chapter will address a number of questions. Is student performance so poor that we should be worried about the amount of time spent studying academic subjects? What have we learned from the movement to increase academic course offerings during the 1980s? Why must we give serious consideration to the issue of time for academic learning if we expect students to achieve the high standards being set throughout the country? How much time do we actually provide for academic learning in U.S. elementary and secondary schools? What is the critical piece of information we have missed in international comparisons?

Is Student Performance So Poor that We Should Be Worried About the Amount of Time Spent Studying Academic Subjects?

There are those who argue that our schools are doing a good job--that the problem is not what the schools are doing, but rather an increasingly diverse and disadvantaged student body. Others argue that overall we are doing about as well as we ever have and point out that test scores in reading, mathematics, and writing, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 1993a), have remained basically stable over the past two decades. Still others argue that we cannot be concerned about how our students perform when compared to students in other countries because our society and culture are different.

Yet, one conclusion is inescapable: the public perception of the quality of education in our schools is not favorable. There is an increasing concern about the ability of our educational system to prepare students to be productive workers and competent citizens. For example, in a 1993 Gallup Poll, only 19 percent of the public gave a grade of "A" or "B" to the public schools while 21 percent gave them a "D" or "F" (Elam, Lowell, & Gallup, 1993). Another nationally representative poll conducted in 1993 by Parade Magazine found that 63 percent of Americans rate the quality of public education as poor or fair (Clements, 1993).

Is the public on target in its assessment of the schools? Indicators from a variety of perspectives can be examined. For example, if we look at international comparisons of the performance of students in the United States, we find evidence such as the following:

Another way of looking at how well students in the United States are doing is to compare their current performance with their past performance. Consider the following:

A third way of examining the performance of our students is to ask how well they should be doing. In 1988, Congress established the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) and directed it to develop "achievement levels," which are collective judgments about how students should perform in a subject area. NAGB established three levels of achievement:

  1. The basic level "denotes partial mastery of the knowledge and skills fundamental for proficient work at each grade."

  2. The proficient level "represents solid academic performance and demonstrated competence over challenging subject matter."

  3. The advanced level "signifies superior performance" (Mullis, Campbell, & Farstrup, 1993, p. 12).

NAGB set the "Proficient Level" at a point which it felt all students should reach. How many of our students reached the Proficient Level? In mathematics, 25 percent or fewer students in grades 4, 8, and 12 achieved at the proficient level (Mullis, Dossey, Owen, & Phillips, 1993). In reading, 25 percent of students in grade 4, 28 percent of students in grade 8, and 37 percent of students in grade 12 were found to be at the proficient level (Mullis et al., 1993).

States which have adopted assessment systems that measure student performance in terms of how well they should be doing have found results comparable to NAGB. For example, in 1994, students in California took the California Learning Assessment System tests which measures the extent to which students are meeting academic standards set by the state. At least one third of students tested in each grade demonstrated little or no understanding of basic math concepts; 30 percent of sophomores demonstrated only a superficial understanding of what they read; and the majority of students in each grade tested wrote incoherently and made frequent errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation (Merl, 1994).

Is student performance so poor that we should be worried about the amount of time spent studying academic subjects? If we believe our students should be competitive with other countries, the answer is yes. If we believe the schools of today should be doing better than the schools of the past, the answer is yes. Finally, if we would like to see students who are able to do what they should be able to do, the answer is yes.

What Have We Learned from the Movement to Increase Academic Course Offerings During the 1980S?

More than 10 years ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education released its report, A Nation at Risk, which noted that secondary school curricula have been "homogenized, diluted, and diffused to the point that they no longer have a central purpose" (National Commission on Excellence in Education [NCEE], 1983, p. 18). That commission recommended that states strengthen high school graduation requirements by requiring all students to take the "Five New Basics": four years of English; three years of mathematics; three years of science; three years of social studies; and one-half year of computer science.

After the release of A Nation at Risk, one of the most visible and talked about activities at the state level centered around increasing high school graduation requirements. By requiring students to take more courses in academic subjects, they would have more time and an increased opportunity to learn. In 1980, 37 states defined minimal graduation requirements. By 1990, 43 states had done so.

Despite all the apparent activity at the state level, it is important to note that overall, only minor changes were made in the number of credits students were actually required to take. In 1980, the average number of credits required for high school graduation was 17.40. By 1990, the average number of credits required had increased to 19.76, an increase of less than 9 percent (Wilson & Rossman, 1993).

What difference did these state requirements make in the academic lives of students? Did large percentages of students find themselves taking calculus, Shakespeare, and physics? Did all students reap the benefits?

In Mandating Education Reform, Wilson and Rossman (1993) outline what they and a number of other researchers have found to be the answers to these questions. First, after states raised graduation requirements, schools within their boundaries offered more academic courses, particularly in mathematics and science. Second, more students were actually enrolled in the courses.

These findings are confirmed by data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which found that the percentage of all graduates completing the minimum academic courses recommended in A Nation at Risk (four years of English, three years each of mathematics, science, and social studies) increased from 13.4 percent in 1982 to 39.8 percent in 1990. But this minimum does not include the half year of computer studies also recommended in A Nation at Risk. With that taken into account, the percentage of completion falls to 22.7 percent. Nor does it include the two years of foreign language recommended in A Nation at Risk for those students going on to college. In 1990, only 17.3 percent of high school graduates took the entire curriculum suggested in A Nation at Risk.

In addition, it is important to note that the NCES statistics reported here are based on high school graduates. Therefore, when NCES reports that 39.8 percent of students are taking the minimum academic program prescribed in A Nation at Risk, that means 39.8 percent of those who have finished high school. It does not include the students who dropped out of school or those who stayed in but never satisfied the requirements of the diploma. If dropouts were included, obviously the percentage of age-group students taking the minimum would be lower than 39.8 percent. Whatever statistic is used, the nation is far from the goal of having all students taking these core academic courses.

NCES (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 1993b) also collected information about the effects of state requirements for graduation on schools. As indicated earlier, A Nation at Risk recommended a core curriculum called the "Five New Basics." Some states mandated that students complete most of these courses. Other states required fewer courses than had been called for in A Nation at Risk. If we look at the percentage of students in 1990 who completed the courses recommended by A Nation at Risk, we find that a much higher percentage of students (48.40 percent) actually completed the courses in states with higher requirements than did students (33.14 percent) in states with lesser requirements. These statistics suggest that what states require does make a difference.

Another important finding reported by Wilson and Rossman (1993) is that most of the new classes offered as a result of increased state mandates for high school graduation were lower level, remedial, or basic rather than advanced and rigorous. Wilson and Rossman (1993, p. 184) observe "a need on the part of local educators to move students through the system, even at the expense of 'watered down' courses...thus, more students are taking more basic academic courses but are not being exposed to the more rigorous and challenging offerings that stress higher-order thinking skills."

Wilson and Rossman (1993) also examined the effects of the new graduation requirements on minority and at-risk youth. They found that even with the increased requirements, minority youth earned fewer total credits, enrolled in fewer advanced courses, failed more courses, and earned more practical arts credits. For example, white students enrolled in advanced courses between 1.5 and 2 times as often as African-Americans.

What have we learned from the movement to increase academic course offerings during the 1980s? First, states did increase their high school graduation requirements, but not by very much. Second, only 39.8 percent of high school graduates in 1990 took the minimum curriculum judged to be essential 10 years ago. Third, while disadvantaged and minority students are taking more courses labeled "academic," there is some evidence that we should be concerned about the rigor of these additional courses. Fourth, when states set high requirements for graduation in core courses, more students take the courses than if the higher requirements were not set.

It appears that increased state requirements are necessary, but not sufficient to cause improvement in student learning. They are necessary because they set the parameters of what subjects are to be taught. They are not sufficient because the quality and rigor of what is taught in the mandated courses varies so widely from place to place and school to school.

Why Must We Give Serious Consideration to the Issue of Time for Academic Learning If We Expect Students to Achieve the High Standards Being Set Today?

In contrast to the reform movement of the 1980s, which specified increased graduation requirements, today's reform initiatives emphasize the development of standards. Increasing graduation requirements during the 1980s signaled a need for additional time to be devoted to academic subjects. The standards movement, which ultimately hopes to define what students at different stages in their education should know and be able to do, will help guide schools in how time could be better used. In 1994, 45 states were planning, developing, or implementing standards (Viadero, 1994).

Part of the motivation for standards has come from unfavorable international comparisons of American and foreign students' academic achievements. Part has come from employers who require better prepared workers and from colleges and universities that find students unprepared for rigorous study. There also is an increasing awareness that we are not clear in this country about what schools should be teaching. The lack of clarity has resulted in a lack of focus. Everything is a priority and nothing is a priority.

Teachers also feel the need to focus and be clear about what they expect their students to accomplish. A 1993 national survey (Louis Harris and Associates, 1993, p. 7) of teachers' opinions found that 80 percent of teachers strongly support national content standards, i.e. what students should know and be able to do.

While, at this point in their development, we do not know exactly what the standards will look like, we expect them to be rigorous. Students will be expected to know more and be able to do it better. They also will be expected to develop higher-order thinking skills which are often under-emphasized in our nation's schools.

Available evidence suggests that more time will be required if students are to meet the standards. Lauren Resnick, a leading researcher on student learning, describes the kind of learning that needs to take place as "time-expensive." Resnick states, "The personal mental elaboration that is necessary for successful learning takes time--much more time than is typically allowed for the study of any topic in the school curriculum" (Resnick, 1992, p. 3).

The leaders of the groups developing standards in different content areas also agree that more time will be needed if students are expected to learn to the levels desired. David Florio of the National Science Foundation reflects the views of other standards setting groups when he says, "There is a consensus view that new standards will require more time" (NECTL, 1993).

Support for setting standards that will improve the academic performance of students can be found in a number of sectors. At the federal level, both the Bush and Clinton administrations have worked to articulate six National Education Goals and to encourage voluntary learning standards and performance assessments. At the state level, there is a movement to place increasing emphasis on results in terms of student performance. School districts across the country have launched a variety of initiatives.

Yet, while public interest in reform appears to be high, much work remains to be done. A 1994 survey of all regionally accredited public and private high schools across the nation concluded that the rate of reform in the nation's high schools "overall is highly variable" and "sluggish with the more traditional institution still dominant" (Cawelti, 1994, p. 66). While there is a great deal of "activity" in schools, "few high schools report the kinds of comprehensive, systemic restructuring that may be needed to make a major impact on student achievement" (ERS News Alert for Education Editors, 1994).

How Much Time Do We Actually Provide for Academic Learning in United States Elementary and Secondary Schools?

How states and schools decide to use the time students are in school is a question of priorities, a question of what we think is important. What we, as a nation, think is important for students to do with their time in school differs at the elementary and secondary levels and state by state.

The Commission's studies of state requirements illustrate these differences. The Commission contacted state departments of education and asked them to provide materials that documented their rules and regulations for the use of time in schools. The materials were analyzed to verify information gathered from key state officials during telephone conversations.

While there were variations across states, clear patterns were evident. The most striking pattern was found at the secondary level, where states requirements are set through high school graduation credits expressed in Carnegie Units. Through Carnegie Units, states require that students take specified numbers of courses in subjects such as English, mathematics, and science in order to graduate. Although the Carnegie Units do not control the level of rigor of courses students must take, they are intended to insure that all students will, at a minimum, be exposed to instruction in certain subjects for specified amounts of time.

The Commission's analysis revealed that an average of 41 percent of students' time over four years of high school is required to be spent studying the courses defined as core by the Commission: English/language arts, mathematics, science, history, geography, civics, foreign language, and the arts. The remaining amount of time was available for electives, which were not defined. In other words, during the four years of high school, states permit significantly more time to be spent on electives than on core academic subjects.

This is not to say that electives have no value. Clearly, some students in some schools are given an opportunity to take challenging and useful electives. However, there are no guidelines for the topics students encounter in elective courses. A motivated student with effective guidance may take rigorous electives in core academic subjects. Many other students do not.

While state graduation requirements are only part of the picture, they are an important statement of what our states, which have the legal responsibility for education in this country, think is important for students. Given the evidence, it is difficult to argue that states communicate the importance of placing a strong focus on academic subjects.

While states influence the use of time at the secondary level through Carnegie Units, they also may provide requirements for grades prior to high school. The Commission collected information about the extent and nature of states' time requirements and recommendations. Figure 1 graphically depicts the Commission's findings. Using the data provided by states, the Commission found that 10 states established time requirements for core subjects in various sets of grades K-9; eight provided time recommendations, while the other 32 states and the District of Columbia had no time requirements or recommendations for core subjects.


Figure 1

Existence of State Time Requirements and Recommendations for Core Academic Subjects at the Pre-High School Level (K-9)

figure 1 omitted

[figure 1a omitted] Time requirements for core subjects for any set of grades within K-9 (10 states)

[figure 1b omitted] Time recommendations for core subjects for any set of grades within K-9 (8 states)

[figure 1c omitted] No time requirements or recommendations for core subjects (32 states)


Across states with time requirements or recommendations, there appears to be a consistent common core of subjects which receive most of the allocated time. This core is comprised of English, mathematics, science, social studies, the arts, and health and physical education. Recommendations and requirements exist almost exclusively in these subjects.

Some states with time requirements or recommendations leave significant blocks of time unallocated, allowing time to be used in either core or non core subjects at the discretion of the districts or schools. The percentages of instructional time not allocated to specific subjects ranges from 2 to 50 percent. Five states leave no time unallocated; five leave less than 15 percent of time unallocated; and the remaining eight states leave more than 15 percent of time unallocated.

The Commission also found a general movement away from specifying how time should be used. A few states have abolished time requirements over the past several years. These states tend to adopt strategies of specifying desired results and giving schools and districts the responsibility of devising plans to achieve those results.

What is the Critical Piece of Information We Have Missed in International Comparisons?

There has been an increasing interest in how much time students in the United States spend in school compared to their counterparts in other countries. If we expect our students to perform academically as well as students in other countries, are we allowing our students enough time to do it?

Different people have answered this question in different ways. Some people have pointed to the fact that Japanese and Chinese children spend a greater total amount of time in school than American children (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992). One study found that Chinese children who have completed sixth grade have spent the equivalent of one to two years longer total time in elementary school than American children (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992). Another study found that Japanese students in senior high school spend approximately 60 percent more total time in school per week than American students (Juster & Stafford, 1991).

If we use statistics on the total amount of time students spend in school in other countries, we might logically conclude that students in the United States are at a disadvantage because they do not spend as much time in school where formal academic learning takes place.

Other people have taken the analysis on a different tack and said it is not important how much time students spend in school. What is important is how much time students spend in classroom instruction. Recent data available tell us that 13-year-old American students actually spend more instructional time in the classroom than students in Japan, Canada, England, Italy, Korea, and Germany (NCES, 1993a). Therefore, although students in a country like Japan actually spend more total time in school than American students, they spend less time than our students in classroom instruction.

If we use statistics on the amount of instructional time students in this country receive versus the amount students in other countries receive, we might logically conclude that we do not need to provide more time for student learning in the United States. If American students already are spending more instructional time than students in other countries, the solution to our relatively poor academic performance as a country must lie elsewhere.

The Commission, however, took the analysis one step further by asking how American students spend their instructional time as compared to students in other countries. What courses do they take and how much time do they spend in these courses? Are American students provided with the same amount of time to learn academic subjects as their peers elsewhere? Information about these questions was gathered through site visits to German and Japanese schools, discussions with leading government officials, and analyses of official documents from those countries and France.

Figure 2 depicts the Commission's findings when it examined how much time students in their final four years of schooling, the equivalent of our grades 9-12, are required to spend studying the core subjects. The Commission estimated that French, German, and Japanese students are expected to spend more than twice as much time on core academic subjects as their American counterparts. It is because our students have the flexibility to take large amounts of non academic courses such as drivers education and life skills education that our students have more instructional time, but less academic time.


Figure 2

The Final Four Years in Four Nations: Estimated Required Core Academic Time

          |         |          |             |             |           |         |          |             |             | U.S.      |=========|======> 1460            |             |           |         |          |             |             |           |         |          |             |             | JAPAN     |=========|==========|=============|==>  3170    |           |         |          |             |             |           |         |          |             |             | FRANCE    |=========|==========|=============|====>    3280|           |         |          |             |             |           |         |          |             |             | GERMANY   |=========|==========|=============|=========>  3528            |         |          |             |             |           |         |          |             |             |           |---------|----------|-------------|-------------|           0       1000       2000          3000          4000                            TOTAL HOURS REQUIRED  
2 Sources: United States estimate developed from The Digest of Education Statistics (NCES, 1992), State Education Indicators (Council of Chief State School Officers, 1990), and the commission's review of academic requirements in 41 states and the District of Columbia. The estimate for Japan was developed from Monbusho (1993 publication of the Japanese Ministry of Education, Science and Culture) and site visits to japanese secondary schools, and confirmed by senior Japanese ministry officials at a meeting in Washington. The estimate for France was developed from a French publication, Organization of the French Educational System Leading to the French Baccalaureat, and confirmed by French officials. The German estiamte is actually the number of hours of required coursework for one state, Berlin.


A critical piece of information that has been missed in previous studies, then, is how much time students spend studying academic subjects. The Commission realizes that other factors, such as the quality of instruction and student motivation, are also critical.

But not to provide the basic ingredient of time for academic study is to fail to provide an opportunity to learn. Without time, other favorable factors have no effect. Studies of productivity confirm the importance of providing time for learning. They suggest that the amount of time students are engaged in learning has a powerful and consistent effect on the amount of learning that takes place. (Walberg, 1988).

In addition, the Commission found illustrations of the effects of allocating additional instructional time on student achievement. One researcher (Bishop, 1993) noted the following two examples:

  1. Americans get considerably more language arts instruction in primary school than students in Europe and this probably accounts for the very strong reading achievement of American 9-year-olds. In ninth grade, however, language arts instruction is allocated less time than in Europe and by this grade the American advantage in reading ability has disappeared (Bishop, 1993, p. 9).

  2. In 1971, Dutch teachers allocated only...7 percent of time in 9th grade to science, and student performance levels were substantially below those in the U.S. and Britain. U.S. achievement levels exceeded Dutch achievement levels by one-third of a standard deviation. In 1982, however, the Netherlands spent a remarkably high 25 percent of 9thgrade instruction time on science (compared to 20 percent for the U.S. and 10 percent in England). As a result, science achievement in the Netherlands was more than one-half of a standard deviation higher than for English and American students (Bishop, 1993, p. 9).

If we choose to provide our students with the same opportunity to master academic subjects as students in other countries, research suggests we need to reclaim the academic day. Currently, there is not enough room in our crowded school days to focus on achieving rigorous academic standards.

The answer lies in the ability to set priorities and to adhere to them. As with any scarce resource, we must treat time with respect and allocate it wisely. This entails emphasizing a rigorous curriculum grounded in the traditional disciplines of English, mathematics, science, history, geography, civics, the arts, and foreign languages to the exclusion of peripheral activities during the core six-hour school day (NECTL, 1994).

It is clear that any campaign to safeguard the academic day is likely to encounter well-entrenched resistance. As one author notes, "in its quest for the well-rounded student, American society [has] steer[ed] the attention of students away from academics" (Loyd, 1991, p. 62).

At the same time, both the public and educators are becoming increasingly sensitive to the priorities we have established for the use of students' time in school. A nationally representative poll of public attitudes reported that 55 percent of the public believes that schools place too much emphasis on sports (Clements, 1993). A survey by the Missouri Association of Secondary School Principals found that students were missing as many as seven days of school to sports and to club activities: "Time lost to extracurricular activities has become a universal complaint." They made the following specific recommendations to safeguard academics:

Common sense suggests that practices such as these eliminate the need to make absolute trade-offs between academics and extracurricular activities. The Commission argues that we must distinguish more clearly between the core academic day and the potentially longer school day. In the former, instructional time for core academic subjects must be protected. In the latter, time can be used for the additional academic time some students need as well as for enriching extracurricular learning. This will be discussed more fully in Chapter 3.
-###-


[Introduction] [Table of Contents] [Chapter Two - Fix the Design Flaw]