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

Strategies to Improve the Quality of Learning Time

The groupings of schools and programs by quantity of instructional time that we employed in the previous section provide an analytic framework for examining the even more critical question of what goes on within the time available for teaching and learning. In Exhibit III-2, the 14 sites that we visited are arrayed in three categories: standard amount of classroom time (the majority of sites); more classroom time; and less classroom time. The "Y" axis lists characteristics of instruction, curriculum, and assessment employed by the sites.

To the extent that the sites utilized or were in the process of implementing innovative approaches to teaching and learning, most were concentrating their efforts on different approaches to instruction. Indeed, some of the sites were selected because we knew that even though they had not added or subtracted time, they configured or conceptualized the standard ration of school time differently than the typical school--specifically through multi-age grouping and/or flexible scheduling.

Multi-age grouping. Philosophically, the idea of multi-age grouping, or ungradedness, removes some of the time-related pressure from both students and teachers of being ready to "pass" to a new level at the end of every school year. Instead, forward progress is benchmarked to longer time frames (typically three years), allowing greater tolerance for developmental and maturational differences among children. Thus, for example, the Alternative Middle Years (AMY) program in Philadelphia has used multi-age (their term is "vertical") grouping of students throughout its 25-year history. Students do not sit in classrooms because they are 12 years old or in the 6th grade. Rather, with the exception of some math courses which are offered in the traditional graded way, students select classes because the themes interest them. Chiron, a relatively new magnet middle school in Minneapolis has adopted a similar approach to grouping students, as have two elementary schools in the sample--Hollibrook and Wheeler. Generally speaking, mixed age groupings also mean mixed ability groupings at these schools.

Exhibit III-2

 

Standard Amount of Classroom Time More Classroom Time Less Classroom Time
AMY Beaver Island Chinquapin Girard College Hollibrook Nativity Mission Nativity Prep. Piney Woods Wheeler ConCurrent Options New Orleans Timilty Chiron Metro
Instructional Strategies
Multi-age groups* . .

.


. .

.
Flexible scheduling*



.

.
.

. .
Team teaching .


.


.

. .
Instructional "families"







.

.

Small class size
. . .
. .





.
Individulization, tutoring . .

.








Homework assistance

. .
. .



.

Use of technology



.

.





Curriculum
Traditional
. . .
. . .
. .

.
Teacher-developed .


.


.

. .
Interdisciplinary .






.

. . .
Enrichment



.


.

.

Workplace preparation








.


.
Applied/experiential
.






.

. .
Assessment
Traditional

. . .

.
. .


Performance assessment







.



.
Portfolios .


.


.


. .
Competency-based
.




.
.


.

* Site selection criteria

In two high school sites--ConCurrent Options and Beaver Island Lighthouse School--mixed- age grouping is a matter of practicality. Both programs offer opportunities for mainly older high school students to rectify credit deficiencies in their pursuit of a high school diploma. For these students, the correlation between age and grade in school has ceased to be relevant. They need a math or a history credit. At the Beaver Island school, some of the instruction is, by necessity, individualized, but wherever possible, the 16-21-year-old students are clustered into subject specific classes. Thus, for example, in the fall of 1993, nine students of varying ages were taking algebra and 12 were enrolled in general science.

An ungraded structure seems to be particularly felicitous at the middle school level because of the wide variation in physical and social maturation. The intellectual mixing of ages and stages in an academic climate downplays the tendency of larger students and early bloomers to intimidate those who are maturing more slowly. At AMY, students were able to compare the vertical grouping arrangement with their previous experiences in elementary school. They professed that they liked the mixture of ages in their classes for a variety of reasons--being friends with everyone, being able to help classmates, the tendency of teachers to explain concepts in several ways to ensure that students at all developmental stages grasped the point. At the elementary schools, students were largely unaware that the ungraded structure that they were experiencing was atypical or unusual; most had never attended school under any other circumstances.

Multi-age grouping is certainly not a new idea. Its historical roots are in the one-room schoolhouse, and it has been in continuous use as an organizational structure in some places throughout the history of American education. As noted in our summary of research, the evidence on its impacts on student achievement are mixed, mixed-age classrooms appear to be enjoying a renaissance. Encouraged by district reform policies, teachers at Wheeler Elementary School in Louisville made their own decision to experiment with mixed groupings as one result of a schoolwide restructuring process. However, Kentucky now requires this structure in the primary grades. Wheeler was thus in the vanguard of a much larger wave of reform in its state. Nevertheless, state mandates are not primarily responsible for the growth in the number of schools turning to an ungraded structure. Adoption of this instructional strategy is more typically the result of school-based decisionmaking in the contexts of schoolwide restructuring (Hollibrook) or the creation of new magnet schools (AMY and Chiron).

Flexible scheduling. As we developed our site selection plan for the Uses of Time study, we were aware of increased interest, particularly at the secondary level, in breaking out of the constraints of the traditional daily schedule of six or seven 45-50 minute periods. For middle and high schools, this interest was partially driven by the desire to create longer blocks of time that would allow experiments with constructivist learning in accordance with the recommendations of newly emerging, discipline-based instructional standards. Elementary school teachers were less concerned about establishing longer blocks of time, since even when states or districts mandate the number of minutes of instruction in given subject areas, elementary school teachers have always had more classroom- level discretion over how instructional time is configured. However, teachers at all levels were examining schedules to find time for joint planning, team teaching, and curriculum development, among other things--again, generally within the context of schoolwide restructuring.

There is no particular pattern to the strategies that the schools we visited adopted to add flexibility to their schedules. In some cases, the changes affect all teachers and students; in others, the flexibility is available but optional. For example:

The reasons for interest in new ways of scheduling such as those just described reflect the professional interest of educators in the recommendations of research on improving curriculum and pedagogy. Some of the high school programs in our sample of sites were also interested in flexible scheduling that could accommodate students' life situations. In the previous section of this chapter, we noted that Metro High School restricted required daily school time to three hours. Students choose whether to attend school in the morning or the afternoon based on considerations such as child care arrangements, work schedules, court-required counseling sessions, or simply personal preference. The ConCurrent Options program, concerned with the same kinds of student issues, makes it possible for the New York City teens who take advantage of it to earn graduation credits from sun-up to nearly midnight and on Saturdays.

Other programmatic innovations. While we used the time-related variables of multi-age grouping and flexible scheduling as selection variables for some of our sites, we inevitably found that the 14 schools and programs in the sample were pursuing other kinds of classroom innovations as well. Reforms that alter time, after all, are strategies designed to allow certain desirable things to happen that had not previously been possible. Exhibit IV-2 matches a list of the school and classroom-based reforms that we encountered with the sites that had adopted them.

In general, we observed that if these sites were either experimenting with or had fully institutionalized reforms of instruction, curriculum, or assessment practices, the reforms represented approaches that were being advocated in the professional and research literature of the time. Indeed, some of the sites could have been selected as case studies for other themes under OERI's Studies of Education Reform program. However, careful attention to Exhibit IV-2 yields the following conclusions:

Small class size. The dedication to reducing class size is an interesting phenomenon. Despite substantial research demonstrating that the student-to-teacher ratio must be very low (perhaps as personalized as 1:1 tutorials) to produce statistically significant differences in student achievement outcomes (see the research review for this study), many educators and parents are persistent in their belief that classes in regular public schools are too large and that this factor is a major contributor to poor student outcomes. The sites in our sample provide ample evidence of this belief: 10 of 14 schools emphasized small classes in promotional literature and in the interviews that we conducted. Most of these schools had student:teacher ratios of about 15:1, which is not greatly lower than the national average for all public schools of 17:1 (NCES, 1994).

At two of the residential schools (Beaver Island and Chinquapin) and the two Jesuit schools, small class size is really a byproduct of small total enrollment. These places were designed to serve very small numbers of highly at-risk students in very special ways. While financial and space considerations are one reason that these schools remain small, their primary arguments for smallness are based on philosophic grounds. Their goals are to have a large impact on a small number of children.

The private schools in our sample can make their own decisions about keeping classes small and the budget trade-offs that must be made to achieve this end without reference to policies and conventions governing publicly supported schools. But, as Exhibit IV-2 shows, many of the public schools in our sample also value smaller classes. However, maintaining small class size in the face of surrounding bureaucracies has been a struggle for several of them. Because reduced class size means more faculty members in relation to number of students, it means an increase in a school's labor costs, which is unpopular with a district's central office. Two of the public schools in this study-- AMY and Chiron--negotiated with their district offices to trade teachers' planning time for additional instructional staff to decrease the student/teacher ratio without increasing building-level operating budgets. Metro High School keeps class sizes small by having only half of its total enrollment on campus at a time (A.M. and P.M. sessions). Timilty Middle School must make an annual argument for the extra resources that allow its extended day and small classes. So far, the arguments have succeeded because the school has produced some rather astounding results (see later section on student outcomes).

Traditional versus innovative curriculum and assessment. As we began our data analysis, we were somewhat surprised by our conclusion that, when all is said and done, curriculum and assessment were quite traditional at a majority of our sites. On reflection, however, we should not have been. The time variables that constituted our main selection criteria are primarily instructional variations. They alter when and how teaching and learning take place. They do not necessarily require change in what is taught and learned. Nevertheless, we observed some relationships between particular quantity and quality of time innovations and concomitant innovations in other technologies of schooling.

Once again referring back to Exhibit III-2, we note that the schools that have adopted multi- age grouping and/or flexible scheduling are more likely to have also altered their approaches to curriculum and assessment. Multi-age grouping, in particular, has several implications for curriculum:

The generalizations above apply primarily to the situations that we observed at the nonresidential elementary and middle schools in the study: AMY, Hollibrook, Wheeler, Timilty, and Chiron. In general, the three public high school sites in the study--Beaver Island, ConCurrent Options, and Metro--offer students fairly traditional academic fare. Metro teachers are inclined to be innovative, particularly in terms of interdisciplinary courses, but the students resist, preferring academic classes that are similar to those they would take if they still attended their city's regular high schools. The high school programs exercise their greatest curricular creativity around their workforce preparation and experiential learning offerings:

The eight sites that we have discussed above represent all of the public schools sites in the study, with the exception of the extended year experiment in New Orleans. There, the only change to curriculum and instruction engendered by the additional time in school involved a more relaxed pace for delivering traditional, grade-by-grade content.

The remaining study sites are the private residential and Jesuit schools. These schools offer students solid but very traditional, strictly college preparatory, academic programs. Perhaps because they are largely out of the public eye and not subject to either the sometimes harsh criticisms that public education has received over the past 15 years or the policy mandates designed to address the criticisms, the private schools seem less concerned with change, less tuned in to recent research on curriculum and pedagogy, more self-confident that they are succeeding with the students they educate.

This observation does not mean that we found the private schools to be complacent, nor that they do not seek out ways to improve their programs. For example, in 1991, Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi established a long-term relationship with the Breadloaf Writing School in Middlebury, Vermont and introduced a writing-across-the-curriculum project. More recently, Girard College in Philadelphia began a restructuring process to, among other things, create better communication between instructional and residential staff about students' progress and problems. Overall, however, the curriculum and instruction in the private schools visited for this study looked and felt very much like good education of the 1950s and 1960s.

It is our experience in visiting the private schools that has caused us to give additional thought to our original hypothesis about the interrelationship between quantity and quality of time variables. More time in classrooms, we thought, coupled with engaging content taught in varied ways, might well lead to demonstrable improvement in student outcomes. These private schools, however, offer "disadvantaged" students a standard amount of classroom time and a textbook and worksheet-driven curriculum delivered by teachers standing at the front of the room. And it seems to work. We turn now to a discussion of the evidence that the 14 study sites could offer about the effectiveness of their programs in helping students learn.
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