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Closing the learning-time gap

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Amid all the debate about addressing the achievement gap, one obvious explanation has escaped attention: the amount of time kids from different backgrounds spend engaged in school or school-related activities.

Having worked in or observed both public and private schools – including inner-city, magnet, suburban, independent, and boarding schools – I’ve concluded that there is a straightforward explanation for why kids in the inner city do relatively well through 3rd grade before starting to fall off track. They are not getting enough time in structured learning environments.

Using high school as the point of comparison, let’s see how learning time varies among types of schools.

Inner-city public schools: Average daily attendance for inner-city high school students is 70 to 75 percent. That’s less than four out of every five school days. Consider, also, that the school day is roughly six hours long and that most students don’t take part in extracurricular activities. Homework – if it is assigned, if it gets done – happens in-class, but not at home. City kids consider time outside of school their own time. Whether for jobs, family responsibilities, or hanging out, school-related responsibilities should not intrude.

Time spent on school/learning per week: 25 hours

Suburban schools: Most suburban kids come to school every day for six to seven hours. Adding an hour or two of homework each night, the time spent in school-related activity approaches 50 hours a week. Students involved in sports or other extracurricular activities are likely to spend an additional 10 to 20 hours engaged with school.

Time spent on school/learning per week: 45 to 65 hours

Private schools: Here students are rarely absent, there is extensive homework, and afterschool activities are required. Sometimes there are games, plays, and other activities on weekends. School time can run 10 hours long, with two to three hours of homework every night.

Time spent on school/learning per week: 60 to 70 or more hours

Boarding schools: This is a 24/7 school environment. There are long instructional days and required extracurricular activities, with supervised study in the evenings. Faculty joins students at meals. There may be required chapel services. Dormitories have faculty residents. Boarding schools are total institutions where a student lives a controlled life, all day, every day. For that reason, they can have an enormous impact.

Time spent on school/learning per week: 168 hours

​This basic analysis tells us that inner-city kids are engaged in learning for about half the time suburban students are, and about a third of the time of private school students. Factor in the hours spent attending summer camp, playing on a traveling sports team, taking music lessons, or learning on the Internet, and the learning-time inequity worsens.

It isn’t only time that’s lost. Relating to adults in different settings – in the classroom, on athletics or debating teams, and at the dining table – counts as learning. High school reformers cite personalization and mentoring as key factors in increasing high school completion rates. To ensure those connections, suburban and private schools consistently place students in contact with adults who may become their coaches and advocates. In urban high schools, student motivation now comes by threat of failing high-stakes exit tests.

Being socialized into a professional work routine, while still in school, also makes a difference. A fledgling lawyer or investment banker is expected to commit 80 to 100 work hours; the expectation for medical students and residents is similar. On the other hand, for clerks at Walmart or bus drivers, anything above 35 to 40 hours a week constitutes overtime.

By the time they’ve finished high school, kids at independent schools have already accepted that they might commit upwards of 90 weekly hours on the job. That kind of commitment is unimaginable to kids at urban high schools. They have, unknowingly, been prepared for the hourly workforce.

The kids who need the most get the least when it comes to the amount of time spent learning. We can tighten standards and raise expectations all we want. But the truth is that closing the achievement gap requires time. For most urban high school students, the time isn’t there.

This article was published at on April 11, 2013.

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