Out of Seattle is a real gem of a study that had us wishing we had thought of it first. A group of determined parents set out to document that high school kids were getting shortchanged on instruction. What started as a fight to change the schedule at their own childrens' high school turned into an examination of instructional time at all 10 of the district's large high schools. What they learned is alarming and we're betting not unique to Seattle schools.
The parents contend that the schools ought to respect Washington State's law on the number of instructional hours that every school is to provide. Instead, they found that the schools tend to view the law laxly, even counting time that students are not in school as instructional time--and that there is significant variation in actual instructional time from one school to the next, by as much as 15 percent.
We have to agree. It's hard to defend that activities like "silent reading" or being sent home for half days meet the intentions of the law, never mind all the activities they were unable to document such as assemblies and having students watch Patriot or Gladiator for the umpteenth time.
Of particular interest, the parents found no easy correlation between the demographics of the school and its teaching time. The school with the lowest percentage of poor kids racked up the fewest instructional hours. The principal at that school defended its schedule (which includes no fewer than 40 abbreviated school days for teacher professional development) by saying that the school's test scores exceed the district and state averages. Given the demographics, they oughta.
On the other hand, parents discovered that the only two high schools that do meet the state time standard are popular with families and routinely produce the best test scores among the schools. Both have proportionally fewer poor kids than most of the other schools.
"Students who are struggling in the system need more time, and even students who are not struggling could be enriched by it," said Kevin Lorensen, the parent who crunched the numbers for the group of about a dozen activists. He said his estimates are "fairly conservative" because he did not have the information to include all the ways school time is used in his statistics. "I was a little shocked that the problem was as serious as it was. It's what the state pays for."
The parents are using the data to challenge the state to enforce its own standard for instructional time. So far, neither the Seattle school district nor the state has shown much interest in taking action. "If one school district can do in two hours what it takes another six hours to do, and the students achieve equally well, then you have to ask what difference does it make," opined Kathe Taylor, policy director at the State Board of Education. In other words, our kids are doing good enuf.
Class time at Seattle high schools differs
Linda Shaw, <i>The Seattle Times</i>, October 17, 2008