Which Varies in Your School: Instructional Time or Student Learning?

By Matthew Larson posted 09-20-2017 00:00


The most frequent questions I receive concern instructional time: How much time should we have for math class at the elementary level? Middle level? High school? What does the research say about time? Does NCTM have a position statement on time? The last question is the easiest to answer: NCTM does not have a current position statement on instructional time. Members with long memories might recall that once upon a time, NCTM did have a position statement on time, Math Takes Time.

I think these questions all falsely presume that there is an answer to the time challenge. In other words, the questions assume there is a magical fixed amount of instructional time that will maximize learning for each and every student. As much as we might want the research to tell us that exactly 61.2 minutes of daily math instruction leads to optimal student learning, it simply isn’t the case.

It is critical to note that how instructional time is used is as important as the fact that it is allocated. If students have additional instructional time but that time focuses on remediation, low-level skills, procedures without understanding and problem solving, or simply repeats strategies already explored in the classroom, then the addition of instructional time is unlikely to support student success. We need to grapple with how we organize and offer instructional time and what we do with it.

Ideally, instructional time would vary to meet the needs of students. For too long the amount of instructional time has been fixed and student learning has been unequal. If we are committed to ensuring equitable outcomes, then instructional time must be the variable factor. Students do not all learn at the same rate.

One of the most well established findings from research concerns opportunity to learn. If students do not have access to sufficient instructional time, their mathematics learning will suffer. And small amounts of time can make a big difference. For example, consider elementary instructional time. Suppose School District A allocates 50 minutes a day for daily math instruction in grades K–5, while School District B allocates 60 minutes a day. At first glance this may not seem like a meaningful difference, but the cumulative impact of this small daily difference is very significant.

Let’s assume both school districts have a 180-day school calendar. Over the course of a school year, students in School District A would need to go to math class an additional 36 days in order to receive as much math instruction as students in School District B. Over six years of elementary school, the students in District B will have received roughly a year more of math instruction than the students in School District A. Differences in instructional time clearly can contribute to inequitable student outcomes.

And the differences can be even more dramatic depending on how schools utilize instructional time to promote student learning. One of the most effective instructional supports is one in which student competence is carefully monitored on the basis of common formative assessments, and then the results of the assessments are used to target groups of students who receive additional instruction on the concepts and skills for which they have yet to reach proficiency.

The critical point is that the focused instruction takes place in addition to whole-class instruction rather than in place of it. Students are not removed from grade-level or subject-based instruction to receive targeted support. In too many cases, traditional interventions fail because they are not done to supplement whole-class instruction but instead of it.

Effective instruction ensures that each and every student has the opportunity to learn grade-level content (or above), while simultaneously guaranteeing each student the additional instructional time and support he or she needs to learn it. Highly effective schools are willing to allow time and support to vary in order to meet student needs.

At the elementary level, for example, all students might have 60 minutes dedicated to daily whole-class math instruction, and also have access to an additional 30-minute block of time designated for targeted mathematics instruction in areas of student need. If teachers work collaboratively in professional learning communities, they can fluidly regroup students among themselves during this additional time to more effectively re-engage students.

At the secondary level, schools that are committed to equitable outcomes often create “double-dose” courses, for example, two-period algebra courses or fluid support courses where students move in and out of a second period of math as the need arises. In both cases the support is directly linked to the grade-level or subject-based curriculum.

Where do you get this additional time? It can be done! Schools all across the country are doing it—but it requires strong leadership and a commitment to equity. Highly effective schools prioritize the curriculum and time, recognizing that while all subjects are important in school, some are more important than others because they are instrumental to student success in everything else. This makes English (including reading) and mathematics the most important subjects in school. After all, there is very little students can access in school if they cannot read. And a lack of quantitative skills will severely impede student success in science and many additional subjects as more and more issues are examined through a quantitative lens.

In Principles to Actions, NCTM argues that “Support for access and equity requires, but it is not limited to, high expectations, access to high-quality mathematics curriculum and instruction, adequate time for students to learn, appropriate emphasis on differentiated processes that broaden students’ productive engagement with mathematics, and human and material resources” (p. 60). If we are committed to ensuring that each and every student is successful in mathematics, then we must ensure that each and every student has adequate time and support to learn mathematics—including additional targeted and effective instructional time.

Varying instructional time instead of student learning by shifting the pedagogical focus from teaching to student understanding is one strategy we can leverage to create a culture of equity. I encourage you to engage with your colleagues and building/district leaders to examine not only how much instructional time you provide students but also to take action on the critical question: does instructional time or student learning vary in our school?