Today, I’m despairing.  I spoke with several of my colleagues today—we’re so busy we rarely have time to do that–particularly one who shares my concerns and values in most ways, and I’m despairing.  I worry that we—those teaching now—may be the last generation of teachers to actually teach even a part of a traditional, full western-civilization inspired and enriched curriculum.  I worry that those that follow will be something far, far inferior to teachers, mere room monitors responsible only for seeing that kids don’t kill themselves or each other as they spend the entire year drilling for the tests that will substitute for growth, ability and humanity.

It’s that time of year again.  The mandatory, high stakes test in my discipline will be inflicted on my kids in less than a month, and I am drilling.  I’ve discovered that in order for the kids to pass, and in order for me to keep my job, I must drill them for a minimum of six weeks prior to the test.  That’s not all we do during that time, but it’s at least 80%, sometimes more.  That’s a month or more of precious class time utterly lost.  Neural connections that will never be made, growth that will never take place, humanity and potential lost forever for the sake of creating data by means of one test.

That’s bad enough, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Let’s do a little basic math and see how much time is being lost—each and every year—in virtually every school district in America.  For the purposes of this analysis, we’ll deal with high school, but please keep in mind that in many elementary schools, virtually all they do anymore is drill for tests, every day, all year every year.

Anytown High School:

Anytown High School has a state mandated school year of 185 days (37 weeks).  It has a school day beginning at 8:00 AM and ending at 3:30 PM.  During those hours, eight classes are scheduled, plus two half hour lunch periods, so each teacher teaches seven classes each day and has one period—about 50 minutes—as a conference/planning period.  The school works on a six-week grading schedule with three more or less equal six weeks in each of two semesters.

At AHS, five minutes is taken from every class so that teachers will have time for an extra study hall period of about 30 minutes to give extra instruction to students in the hopes of raising state test scores.  The math: 5 minutes X 185 days = 925 minutes per year.  Divide that by 45 minutes (the time remaining for each class period) and that’s 20.6 days per year.  Remaining class days: 185 – 20.6 = 164.4 days.

At AHS, there is a separate class schedule—it removes 5 minutes from each class to create an assembly period–for those days when there are mandatory pep rallies, assemblies of various kinds, and other diversions requiring the attention of the entire student body.  Let’s say there are 25 of these a year (a conservative figure).  The math:  five minutes X 25 days = 125 minutes per year.  Divide that by 45 minutes and that’s 2.8 lost class days per year.  Total: 164.4 – 2.8 =  161.6 days.  Keep in mind that when these assemblies run long–as they often do–additional class time is inevitably lost.

At AHS the testing mandates of the state cost about 20% of the school year, which equals 37 lost days.  To obtain this figure, I’m using an estimate by Mr. Thomas Ratliff, member of the Texas State Board of Education.  You can find a link to his original article in my recent series on problems and solutions in contemporary education (the entire series is available in the SMM Education archive).  The math:  161.6 – 37 = 124.6 days remaining.

At AHS, the local school board is anxious about state testing mandates, and has imposed testing mandates of its own.  “Benchmark” tests are required for each discipline being tested by the state, and these tests take at least one day per six weeks.  The local district believes these tests will produce reliable, predictive data about how their students will perform on the state tests.  They are wrong (that’s a matter for another post), but believe it anyway.  The math: 124.6 – 6 = 118.6 days remaining.  For ease of calculation, let’s round that to 119 days.  That means that the students of AHS have only 64% of their school year available to the possibility of learning something other than how to pass high stakes tests or how to cheer at pep rallies and similar events.

But that’s not all by a long shot.  At AHS, the state mandates that students recite the Pledge of Allegiance and the State Pledge once every day and also observe a “moment of silence.”  Since this is mandatory, the administration of AHS also uses that opportunity to have announcements read.  This too takes five minutes per day from the period in which it occurs, in this case, first period.  We already know that this amounts to 20.6 days—lets just round it to 21—over the school year, which means that on top of the 66 days already lost to every student in the school, every student in the school will lose 21 additional class periods in their first period classes.  For some that’s 21 lost days of English, for others, 21 lost days of science, algebra or history.  But that will amount, for that class for each child, to reducing their learning opportunities to only 98 days, or only 53% of the entire 185 days.

But wait!  There’s more!  Like virtually every American high school, AHS offers the full range of sports.  A student that plays a single sport has the opportunity to be out of school for away games on at least six days.  That student’s learning days are down to 113 (61%).  And if they play three sports, they’ll probably miss 20 days, so their learning opportunity is down to just 99 days / 54% for six of their classes and 77 days / 42% for their first period class, whatever that might be.

And that’s not all!  In effect, the lost class time never ends.  A student absent due to illness or for other reasons eight days during the year is down to 111 days, or only 60% of the available school year.  Notice that I’m not bothering to try to figure in class periods lost to daydreaming, skipping class, out-of-class disciplinary placements, students being called to the office or counselors for any one of a hundred reasons, going to the nurse, students released from school for medical appointments, shopping, family vacations or any of a multitude of other disruptions.  I’m also not figuring in the hundreds of yearly interruptions to classes by PA messages, students being pulled out to see counselors or principals, announcements about event and activity cancellations, bus route changes, and similar issues that may take only a minute, but interrupt the class and cost at least three minutes for the teacher to once again restore order, and it is entirely possible for substantial portions of the AHS student body to have less than 50% of 185 days available for actually learning anything.

Two Students:

Let’s take Bobby and Suzy, two AHS teenagers much like those you’ll find in any American high school.  Let’s assume that they are both good students and take maximum advantage of their educational opportunities.

From the first day of school, it is certain that they will each have only 119 days, or 64% of the school year available for real learning.  For their first period class, that’s only 98 class periods/days, or 54%.

Bobby is also an avid student athlete on the varsity football team, the basketball team and the track team.  Gone at least 20 days to various games and meets, his school year is reduced to only 99 days / 54% for most classes, and 57 days / 31% for his first period class.  If any of his teams makes the playoffs or goes to the state meet, that could easily add the loss or three—or more–extra days for each sport.

Suzy is not only a good student, she’s a good musician and plays in the AHS marching band, which primarily exists to support and follow the football program.  As a result, Suzy is gone at least 8 days of the year, but her band director also manages to take the band to a variety of contests and other performance opportunities, so she’ll be gone 14 days.  This reduces her in class time to 105 days / 57% of the year, and for her first period class, 84 days / 45% of the school year.

The Point:

It’s simple, isn’t it?  Mandating 185 school days might sound substantial, but even students who aren’t discipline problems and who are not involved in sports, music or other activities that routinely take them from their classes will have the opportunity to attend only between 54% and 64% of their classes where something other than learning how to take mandated tests is being presented.

Some might suggest lengthening the school year, but stop to think: wouldn’t those multiple special interests, in and out of school, simply see the opportunity to take even more days for themselves?  Would that time actually result in more learning opportunities for schools already so blithely throwing huge blocks of instructional time away?  When politicians talk about raising taxes, do you actually believe they’ll use the money to reduce the debt?

Oh, but I must be mistaken!  Surely I’m exaggerating or making math errors.  Well, I’m an English teacher born without the math gene, so math errors are certainly possible.  If I’m making them, by all means let me know.  But I suspect that even if that is the case, the point is not lost.  With the best intentions, in the expectation of helping children learn, we are wiping away as much as 56% of their opportunity to learn anything meaningful, even more in some cases.

In many respects, I’m not too worried about kids like Bobby and Suzy.  They’re smart, motivated and hardworking kids who will successfully juggle their activities and schoolwork, will attend college and will ultimately succeed in life.  They’re the kind of people who know that they and they alone are responsible for their education and act on that understanding.  But even they will miss an enormous amount of information, growth and the beauty inherent in learning.  There simply won’t be time to present it to them.  Instead of 15 of the greatest novels and books ever written, they’ll have the chance to read only 11 this year, and the class that follows them, perhaps only eight, and that only in honors classes.  But what about those kids that aren’t as focused, that aren’t—let’s put it honestly–as smart?  What they learn in high school may be the sum of their formal education, and we’re wiping away 50% and more of it in the name of “accountability.”  How great is their loss?  How great is our nation’s?

The Solution:

In many ways, our schools are very much like our federal government.  They’ve taken on far too many things unrelated to their actual mission.  The more they take on, the more constituencies are created demanding that those activities never die.  The more testing we do the more testing must be done to produce even more data to prove the validity of the testing.  The more money is spent on these distractions, the more political power is created, horded and husbanded and the more money is spent.

If we’re thinking, if we’re paying attention, we have to know that the testing craze is not only materially contributing to the bankrupting of our states and schools, it’s killing 20%–in many places much, much more—of each school year.  Every five minutes of class time we take (if done every day) is 21 lost class periods per year—four weeks and one day, lost.

Take the time to look into your local schools.  How much class time is lost to all of the common disruptions I’ve mentioned?  What other disruptions cost class time in your child’s school?  Is it better or worse than the fictional but all too representative AHS?  How much of each school year are you comfortable losing?  What program or activity– which disruption–is important enough to you to take even five minutes of time in class away from your child?

Did you know?  Do you care?  Can you see why I’m despairing today?  Barack Obama wants everyone to go to college.  Even now states are creating time-consuming college preparation mandates.  Your federal and state legislators and educrats always want to test your kids within an inch of their lives.  I’d just like to have my students in class every now and then.  You?