School days for many students can stretch to nine hours or more when you factor in bus time, athletics, or after-school activities. Traditional 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedules can create inattentive students, yet principals may be at a loss for how to increase instructional time. Consider examining your school schedule and looking for ways to maximize your students’ time.
Traditional School Day
Despite the wealth of research on sleep deprivation and its effects on growing adolescents, the school day begins well before 8:00 a.m. and ends before 3:00 p.m. at the majority of high schools in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, where I have worked for the past 48 years. I suspect this is the norm in most secondary schools throughout the country.
Added to the early start is the length of the bus ride, which can vary from less than 20 minutes to one hour, depending on a student’s proximity to the school. The problem is more apparent in suburban and rural school districts serving large townships and counties.
A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in October 2009 found that two-thirds of high school students sleep for no more than seven hours each night. This lack of sleep not only causes students to perform poorly throughout the school day but also potentially harms physical growth and brain development by lowering the level of human growth hormone their bodies produce. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that American teenagers get 8.5 to 10 hours of sleep each night.
A study in the Journal of Pediatrics in October 2016 concluded that energy drinks containing high concentrations of caffeine, which many teens consume to stay awake, could harm adolescents’ neurological and cardiovascular systems.
Lack of sleep may even be related to the United States’ obesity epidemic. Although obesity has many causes, research suggests that a lack of sleep induces the body to secrete hormones that increase the appetite and reduce its secretions of the hormones that control satiety.
Most high schools start and end as early as they do in order to accommodate extracurricular activities, athletics programs, and after-school jobs, all of which contribute to the problem of sleep deprivation in adolescents.
Some educators say schools should adopt later start times, despite the objections that are sure to arise. Academics take priority; however, co-curricular activities and athletics can still be accommodated with a late start to the school day.
Examining the Daily Schedule
Most middle school and high school schedules consist of an eight- or nine-period day with 40- to 45-minute periods and multiple short lunch waves. Organizing the schedule this way requires the frequent movement of the entire student body throughout the day. When 1,000 or more students move eight or nine times each day, it requires excessive teacher supervision to ensure safe conditions are maintained. Schedules require passing times of between three and five minutes, depending on the physical layout of the school.
The results of such a schedule include shorter instructional periods, lost time to pass from class to class, and lunch periods of 20 to 30 minutes (with clean-up time in between). First-period classes that meet well before 8:00 a.m. can be plagued by excessive tardiness and tired students.
Many districts have moved to block schedules and rotating schedules that allow for longer class periods and fewer meetings. Others have recognized that by offering fewer periods per day—for example, seven rather than the traditional eight or nine—they can significantly increase class time to an hour or more.
In several districts in New Jersey, including West Windsor/Plainsboro and Weehawken, where I served as superintendent of schools, high schools moved to a rotating schedule that included seven classes that each met four days per week. Students had six hour-long classes each day and a 40-minute lunch period, creating a far less frenetic and more manageable schedule for all students.
Time for Quality Instruction
Schedules can be constructed to increase and distribute instructional time to better address and match the needs of the curriculum. Increased instructional time allows for sustained classroom experiences such as debates, cooperative learning, and hands-on laboratory activities.
Such activities cannot be accomplished well in a 40- to 45-minute class period. In fact, this type of schedule reinforces the “lecturing” form of instruction found in high schools with traditional fixed class periods.
While lecturing teachers may stop periodically to check on the attention and comprehension level of the students by asking a series of specific or open-ended questions, this format tends to create passive learners rather than active and engaged participants. Grant Wiggins, a respected educational researcher, has reported that high school student surveys reflect inordinate levels of student boredom. Those of us who frequently visit classes can readily attest to his findings. Of course, a lecture given by a knowledgeable teacher has its place in the instructional repertoire, but the traditional factory-type schedule forces teachers to rely on the lecture method in order to “cover the curriculum” adequately.
Most teachers are willing to expand their instructional portfolio and incorporate more innovative instructional methods. They want to motivate students to become active participants in the learning process. The concern most often heard by high school principals from teachers is, “We don’t have enough time to cover the curriculum.”
The One Lunch Period
Innovative approaches have enabled even large schools with limited serving and dining areas to accommodate scheduling one lunch period. Many districts, where feasible, operate with an open campus that allows upperclassmen to leave school grounds during the lunch period.
In fact, a longer lunch period in which everyone gathers at the same time can be a powerful way to enhance a positive school culture. Scheduling only one lunch period for all students, faculty, and staff-as opposed to multiple lunch waves-not only reduces excessive student movement throughout the building but also allows for better socialization and delivery of services for the entire school. It allows opportunities for the formation of friendship groups, club activities, extra help, and counseling activities.
Principals of schools that have made the change attest that it is worth the effort to implement one lunch period for all.
Time for Change
Institutional change is hard to achieve; it is much easier to maintain the status quo. Nevertheless, we know that change is inevitable; growth is optional. The latest addition to the educational landscape—digital learning—will require significant changes to our traditional K–12 school system. The conventional high school schedule remains a serious obstacle to the reforms inherent in the digital age.
We now have sufficient research that challenges many of our current practices. It is time to consider changing the scheduling standard and traditional high school timetable to ensure we are doing all we can to significantly lengthen instructional time.
John T. Fitzsimons, PhD, is a former superintendent of schools in Lawrence, NY.