How Five Schools Rethought Time--and Improved Teaching and Learning
This post is by Jon Snyder, the executive director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE).
When we talk with teachers, it doesn't take very long before the conversation inevitably turns to time. In fact, talk with most anybody about anything and when you scratch the surface, time comes up. It takes time to get really good at something and there is never enough time; especially for improving the effective use of this most valuable resource. As Mark Twain pithily put it, "If I'd had more time, I'd have written a shorter letter."
Since time matters, we studied five schools (four in the United States and one in Singapore) that were intentional about and paid attention to time, especially to time within the school day for teachers to learn with and from each other.
What we found, and what other research corroborates, is that when teachers are provided the time to learn with and from each other, they:
- Increase their own teaching capacity and the teaching capacity of their colleagues;
- Develop the learning culture of the school;
- Improve teacher retention;
- Spread the growth of quality practices; and
- Enrich the capacity of the system to sustain and continuously renew improvement.
Most importantly, in both international and U.S. studies, there is research correlating teachers learning with and from each other with improving outcomes for our children.
In our study, we wanted to learn different ways that time could be organized within the school day, what happened inside that differently organized time, and what supported and constrained the use of that time to benefit our children and our communities.
Lessons from the Five Schools
Time for teachers to learn with and from each other, however, is not a magic elixir. Unless the time created is used effectively, it does not support the benefits listed above.
Although different, all five schools did several things in common to assure that time intentionally created was time well used. In some ways, what they did in common is not all that surprising. What might be surprising is that what seems so obvious remains unusual.
First, they all started with what they wanted for their children. All of the schools were both learner- (focused on the student) and learning- (focused on the content) centered. Importantly, the schools wanted their students to grow and develop across all the domains of human endeavor, and in the cognitive domain to learn both "traditional" subject matter content and deeper learning skills. It was the whole child, not solely standardized measures of canned content curriculum, that was the raison d'etre for how they improved the use of time--the schedule--for both students and the adults who work with them.
Then they created (and continually re-created) the school schedule so that it would work better for the students ... and, importantly, so that it would also work better to enable teachers to help each other do what was best for the students.
They all hired well-prepared teachers, teachers who were good at what they did to start with and who all were willing to work within the learning culture of the school to get better.
In order to help teachers learn and do what would work better for their students, they created multiple and flexible roles for teachers--both in working with their students and also in working with each other. These roles included providing professional development through, for instance, the mentoring of beginning teachers, facilitating professional learning communities (by grade level and by content), and observing other teachers. Teachers also had significant roles in curriculum and assessment development as well as school governance. It wasn't just time that was used differently in these schools, it was also how they flexibly used the strengths, interests, and needs of teachers so that the time created was time used to support students and teachers.
These multiple and flexible roles for teachers were essential for the schools to function within multiple constraints. There are still only 24 hours in a day, so you can't increase the number of hours in a day to create more time. There are still (even with permission for adjustments to the contract from the district and the union) contractual issues to consider. Finally, there are still only so many dollars in the budget to spend on personnel. While these schools had some additional resources when they began their changes, they all returned to the same fiscal resources and personnel available to the other schools in their district. Although they didn't have additional FTEs, they used their existing FTEs differently--changing "traditional" roles of administrators, "regular" teachers, "specialist" teachers, aides, and paraprofessionals, as well as using community resources.
It wasn't always, and still isn't, easy for these schools. Strategically managing partnerships, maintaining the permeable permission to be different, avoiding meeting creep, sustaining the learning culture of the school through the inevitable personnel churn--not to mention the need to continually change the schedule as the strengths, interests, and needs of the students change--all require ongoing work.
These schools would tell you, however, that the outcomes for the children and their families make it worth the effort. As a teacher at one of the schools explained, "The kids benefit from it, so it's worth it."