How much time do kids spend in school? It depends on where they live.

Students at Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary School in Dallas fell significantly behind during the pandemic, and Principal Sandra Barrios knew at least part of the solution: more time.

More time to learn the material they never got to learn, more time to develop the social and emotional skills that they never got to practice. More time to get acclimated to the demands and structure of school.

Last year, Dallas Independent School District, with the help of millions in federal COVID-19 relief money, gave high-poverty schools the option of adopting more instructional time for certain students through a longer school year. After consulting with and winning over families and staff, Barrios leaped at the opportunity.

“It was a chance to catch up the kids, get them where they needed to be and give them a more instant return on their education,” Barrios said. At Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary and the other 40 or so schools on the "intersession" model, the calendar starts earlier and ends later than the typical school year, allowing for five weeks of extra schooling spread throughout. The idea is that, instead of remediating over the summer, participating kids get in-depth academic support as soon as they needed it.

And that return has been instant indeed: Last school year, Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary, in a community home to a large refugee and immigrant population, scored 94 out of 100 on the state’s annual school ratings. That was the highest grade it’s ever received.

“I was shocked to see (the scores),” Barrios said. “We were able to address those gaps in the students’ learning a lot faster … and I think it goes back to the extended calendar.”

Research shows more high-quality instructional time is key to catching kids up from COVID-19-era learning disruptions, an idea that’s been touted by figures ranging from California Gov. Gavin Newsom to philanthropist and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Yet relatively few districts are doing it: Adding instructional time isn’t just expensive (the extended calendars in Dallas are set to last for two years), it’s also pretty unpopular. Some districts are actually moving in the opposite direction, adopting four-day weeks to make themselves more attractive to teachers and other staff.

And according to new research provided exclusively to USA TODAY, that’s on top of huge variations in how much learning time kids get to begin with. Students’ allocated learning time can differ by nearly 200 hours a year depending on where they live in the country.

The study, by Brown University’s Matthew Kraft and Stanford University’s Sarah Novicoff, found that the typical K-12 public school in the U.S. is in session for 6.87 hours per day and 178.71 days per school year, for a total of 1,227 hours per year. But those averages mask huge disparities in the amount of instructional time students are allotted.

That time can differ by as many as 189 hours – a gap roughly equivalent to 5½weeks.

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Diving into the disparities

Generally speaking, students in the U.S. spend about the same amount of time in school as their peers in other wealthy countries. But the American school system is notoriously decentralized – including when it comes to all the laws and policies dictating how much time kids spend in school.

By the time they graduate, for example, students in Maryland will in theory have spent almost an entire school year longer on instruction than their peers in states such as Florida, Connecticut and Alaska.

Then there are variations from district to district. State laws just set the minimum amount of time required, in some cases, using days; in others, hours and in still others, a combination of the two; districts can choose to offer more instructional time.

More than 18% of public schools are in session at least a full week less than the national median of 180 days, while a significant chunk offers a full week more. Another 13% of public schools have days that are at least 30 minutes shorter than the national median. which is 6.9 hours.

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These differences “translate into thousands of hours over the course of a kid’s trajectory in school,” Novicoff said. “That’s a tremendous resource that certain kids are not being offered.”

Of course, allocated instructional time is a poor measure of how much time students actually spend on tasks. There are all kinds of disruptions that come up during the day, from announcements on the intercom to a skinned knee in need of a Band-Aid. Then there are the absences, by both students and teachers, that have become more common since the start of the pandemic.

Kraft and Novicoff centered some of their research on Providence, Rhode Island, schools as a case study, gathering and crunching all kinds of data. And their conservative estimate is that at least a fourth of high schoolers' total instructional time is ultimately lost to those absences and disturbances.

Providence would, according to the study, need to add an extra 1.85 hours to every school day to achieve the 5.76 hours of instructional time that the district intends to offer students.

Providence, with about 22,000 students, isn’t meant to be representative of public school districts writ large, “but it certainly tells us something about urban public schools,” which nationwide are dealing with high levels of chronic absenteeism. “It all adds up in a way that we don't perceive on a day-to-day basis,” Kraft said. Roughly 4 in 5 of Providence’s students are Hispanic or Black, and a slightly larger percentage receive free or reduced-price lunch. Nearly one-third are English-language learners.

Notably, one study by University of California, Los Angeles researchers published in 2020 looked at federal data from the 2015-16 school year and found Black students lose more instructional time than their white peers because of suspensions. Nationwide, Black students missed out on nearly five times as many instructional days as white students.

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One imperfect but relatively straightforward solution, according to Kraft and Novicoff, is to raise and align minimum learning time requirements.

Yet, the status quo – roughly 6 hours a day, 180 days a year, with extended recesses in the summer and winter – persists in large part because it’s what families are used to. According to Kraft and Josh Boots, an education researcher who works with Washington, D.C.-area schools, resistance from teachers unions has also played a role.

Just last month, the teachers union in Los Angeles voted to boycott optional learning days that were added to the calendar. United Teachers of Los Angeles in a press release has referred to the district’s so-called "acceleration days" as a “$122 million stunt” that “prioritizes optics over student needs."

Either way, some districts, particularly in rural areas in states like Idaho and Missouri, have actually shortened the school week, often with the goal of retaining and recruiting teachers.

The model has been growing in popularity over the past two decades, Brookings Institute research shows, with at least 662 districts across two dozen states operating on four-day weeks as of the spring right before the pandemic. That trend has only escalated since the onset of the pandemic.

And research suggests that’s antithetical to academic recovery efforts: Although some four-day week schools compensate with longer days, on average students who attend them spend 85 fewer hours on instruction every year. “I think the move to four-day school weeks is an unequivocally bad thing for kids and families,” Kraft said, acknowledging some districts have had little choice amid staff hemorrhaging.

The circumstances that have compelled the shift to four-day weeks “do not have to be the status quo,” Kraft continued. “We are capable of changing how we structure teacher compensation or finance our public education system in an equitable way so that they aren’t forced to make choices among bad options.”

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Extend the school day, week, or year?

In underscoring the need for more instructional time in a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, Bloomberg said school districts should be experimenting with a range of strategies including "Saturday academies." These weekend add-ons typically pair academic remediation with enrichment.

But turnout in those types of programs has often been low. And drawing from the existing research base, Kraft said any models that stray too far away from the “universal delivery of public education” will flounder; certain students will invariably fall through the cracks.

Some districts, especially in rural areas in states, have actually shortened the school week, hoping to retain and recruit teachers.
Some districts, especially in rural areas in states, have actually shortened the school week, hoping to retain and recruit teachers.

How – and in what context – schools extend students' learning time matters. While parents tend to favor adding optional time to school schedules, for example, research suggests anything that seems extracurricular will have little material effect on achievement.

“Trying to have something before or after school feels exclusionary to the student,” said Boots, the executive director of EmpowerK12, a nonprofit. “Their brains are just thinking, ‘Oh, my friends are out doing this and therefore I’m not listening to my tutor.” Meanwhile, longer school days have diminishing returns; after a certain point, kids’ brains start to turn off.

Experts believe the approach that Dallas is experimenting with could be one of the most effective and viable ways of adding instructional time to students’ days.

At Jack Lowe Sr. Elementary, most students – not just those who are struggling – participate, and teachers work with them on core subjects for two-hour increments, interspersing the academic work with fun activities like cooking and social-emotional programming. Teachers who participate get paid as much as $11,000 more a year.

"We should use the time that we have well and ask hard questions," Kraft said, "like whether it makes sense that in one state a kid is going to have hundreds of hours more of learning time than another for no reason other than the coincidence of where their family happened to live."

Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 4 day school weeks? New study shows large disparities in learning time