It's time to rethink how Oregon schools work

By Jeff Allen of Portland, Oregon. Jeff is an English teacher at Oregon City High School. Read his blog at chuckingrocks.com.

Much has been made of recent news that Oregon’s high school graduation rate in 2013 (69%) was the lowest in the U.S. (unless you count Idaho, a state that doesn’t bother to calculate such data), and that 2014’s wasn’t much better (72%). People are angry, and they should be: the state of Oregon has failed its schools and students for too long.

Unfortunately, our politicians are still proposing the same kinds of solutions they’ve always proposed. Yes, as Democrats say, we need more funding. Yes, as Republicans say, we must use our resources wisely. And yes, Oregon schools chief Rob Saxton’s suggestions that schools address chronic absenteeism and that the state award money to keep at-risk freshman on track are both steps in the right direction. But none of these solutions address the underlying structural problems plaguing our schools.

Think scheduling.

To start, why are we still operating on an agrarian calendar? Oregon’s schools shut down for ten weeks every summer, even though numerous studies have found that “summer learning loss equaled at least one month of instruction.” That’s right: we lose a month of learning with each student every year because of summer break, meaning that by the time a student has graduated from high school, she’s lost more than a year of instruction.

Likewise, most high schools start before 8 a.m., despite scientific data that shows teenagers, due to a change in their biological clock, fall sleep and wake up later than young children and adults. Indeed, a study done in Minnesota showed that a later start led to noticeable improvements in student academics and attendance.

Finally, the school day continues to be saddled on the framework of an eight-hour workday, ignoring what anyone with common sense knows: that learning is fundamentally different than working. A useful analogy is that the human brain is like a sponge: once saturated to capacity, it can’t absorb more information without squeezing some out, a dynamic that leaves students toiling away in classrooms long after what they can learn has been maxed out. For this reason, psychologists who study learning recommend that instruction, or study, be spaced out over time. For example, psychology professor John Kihlstrom of UC Berkeley, writes: “shorter study sessions, interspersed with other activities, yield better long term retention than the same amount of study all at once.”

What does it look like in practice? Each morning, about a third or more of my American Literature students are tardy, and some don’t to show up at all because they’d rather sleep in. Those that are there are so tired, most can’t answer simple “yes” or “no” questions, and if we read for more than 15 minutes, several will fall asleep on their desks. In the day to day process of teaching and learning, those 1st period students aren’t as sharp or engaged as they might otherwise be—they’re just too tired—and as a consequence, their learning is stunted.

At the end of the day, I see the opposite. My 5th period freshman are overly chatty, have a hard time staying in their seats, and sport attention spans pared down to about two or three minutes. Indeed, their minds are splintered, scattered, stuffed. And as much as I try to use kinesthetic activities, as much as I try to use that nervous energy for good, the fact is that those students are learning a fraction of what they would if I had them earlier in the day.

Then there’s summer break: the “reset” button. Most of our students haven’t read; even less have practiced any kind of math, or studied science or social studies. As a result, teachers end up spending much of the first month or two of every year re-teaching concepts our students should know already. For example, as an English teacher, I re-teach the concept of a “thesis” or “claim” year after year, as do all of my colleagues, despite the fact that our students have been taught these concepts starting as early as 5th or 6th grade.

How can kids learn when they’re so tired they can hardly stay awake, or so overloaded with information they can’t concentrate on simple learning activities for more than a few minutes? And how can teachers build on the prior year’s foundation when so much knowledge and skill has eroded during an overlong summer filled with aimless, unstructured time? Remember, we’re talking about at least an hour of wasted time every day (if not more) due to early start times and an overlong school day, tacked onto a month of learning, on average, that is lost every year thanks to a two and a half month summer vacation.

Our school schedule is both inefficient and ineffective: a massive disservice to taxpayers, teachers, parents, and students. Luckily, addressing these problems doesn’t need to be difficult or expensive—all it takes is some courage and the willingness of our school boards and state leaders to think outside the box.

For example, if the teacher work day was shortened from eight hours to seven, and the student day from seven hours to six, we could address the structural problems:

  1. By carving additional hours out of the teacher contract, we could add more than 25 days—five weeks—to the school calendar, filling the summer gap.
  2. High school start times could also be pushed back, so by the time they arrived, students would be awake and ready to learn.
  3. Instead of being overwhelmed by information, students could learn at a more reasonable pace—slightly fewer hours per day, but far more days per year.
  4. Sports and after school activities would be unaffected, because eliminating an hour from the school day means that school could start later and end at the same time.
  5. While such a change would require a little more revenue to provide for transportation and building costs for the extra days, the cost of labor (teachers, administrators, and support staff) wouldn’t change, making it an easy lift for the legislature.

Now certainly, there will be objections to such a change. For a lot of adults, including parents, teachers, and other school staff, early start times are convenient. Additionally, many students and teachers will miss their long summer breaks. And you can bet we’ll hear a lot of complaining and foot dragging about bus schedules.

But let’s remember two things: first, when and how we schedule school is to a large degree arbitrary—the laws of physics will not be violated because high school starts at 8:30, or because we have a five week break in the summer instead of ten. Second, public school exists to ensure that all of Oregon’s kids receive a free, high quality education that prepares them to enter college and/or the workforce, and to be responsible citizens. We DO NOT spend billions of dollars on schools every year because they’re convenient for adults, to have long summers, or so that we don’t have to rethink bus schedules.

Again, the current calendar and daily schedule of most Oregon schools are detrimental to the learning and academic achievement of our students. Yet principals, superintendants, and school boards find every reason not to change the status quo, and it seems that either our politicians haven’t considered this problem, or they refuse to address it because they’re afraid such sweeping changes might upset some constituents.

The bottom line, however, is that if we want our schools to be as effective and efficient as possible—if we want taxpayers to get the most for their money—then how Oregon’s schools are scheduled has to change. Shorten the school day, start school later, and with the extra hours, buy our students another five weeks of instruction. Such a change would lead to better academic achievement, higher attendance, and a greater retention of learning throughout the year, which will ultimately translate into higher scores on standardized tests and improved graduation rates. More importantly, Oregon’s students will be more ready to enter college and the workforce, as well as to be great citizens.

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