Does it matter that Minnesota students are in school less than most of their peers?

It is summer break for Minnesota students, marking the conclusion of another school year. At an average of 174 days per year, Minnesota public school students spend less time in the classroom than a large number of their peers across the country.

Newly published research on schooling and instructional time in U.S. public schools found that during their K-12 journey, millions of students will have access to two years of additional time in school compared to millions of their peers, all depending on where they live.

The paper, published in the American Education Research Journal, examined the complex role that time plays in the learning process. “What is the effect of time in school on student achievement?” the authors set out to answer. (Excluded from their analysis were alternative schools, special education schools, and career/technical/vocational schools.)

After synthesizing the findings from 74 studies on the topic and organizing their review around four policies that influence structure and time in school — extending the school year, extending the school day, a four-day school week, and setting school start times — the authors discovered

a compelling body of evidence that increasing total time leads to gains in academic achievement, the magnitude of which depends critically on the existing amount of time, how time is increased, and how time is used.

Research also consistently shows that student achievement declines when districts reduce time in school by adopting four-day school weeks. [Check out the latest study here.]

The authors compiled the literature on the topic into the figure below (Panel B), noting that

additional days of instruction lead to improved academic outcomes for students of generally small magnitude in both the U.S. and international context. More substantial expansions of the school year do appear to produce larger effects, but these are often measured in terms of on-time educational progress and attainment and do not show in the figure. Reductions in the length of the school year often have the opposite effect, harming student achievement.

Source: “Time in School” by Matthew Kraft and Sarah Novicoff

Literature on extending the length of the school day also suggests, overall, a “consistent positive effect of adding more total time on student achievement,” continue the authors.

“Total time” in school is the number of planned days per year multiplied by the number of planned hours per day. Minnesota statutes mandate at least 165 days of instruction for a student in grades 1-11, unless a four-day week schedule has been approved. A student in kindergarten must receive at least 425 hours of instruction, a student in grades 1-6 must receive at least 935 hours of instruction, and a student in grades 7-12 must receive at least 1,020 hours of instruction.

Perhaps to account for lost instructional time due to off-task behavior, transitions, student disruptions, etc., Minnesota students spend an average of 6.72 hours per day in school, an average of 174.13 days per year, and an average of 1,171 total hours per year, according to the report. So, higher than the minimum requirements but still on the low end compared to other states (see table below). Texas students receive the highest number of total instructional hours in a year with an average of 1,324 and Hawaii students receive the lowest, with an average of 1,143 total hours per year.

The variations among states mean that public schools at the 90th percentile of number of hours per day are in school almost 200 hours more than schools at the 10th percentile, according to the report. That equates to a difference of approximately five and a half weeks of schooling, or more than two full school years over a student’s 13 years in the U.S. school system.

Declining student performance that started well before COVID-19 has policymakers scrambling to figure out what is needed to change the alarming trajectory. Some states and districts are increasing time in school as a response, but at the same time we are also seeing districts reduce instructional time with the adoption of four-day school weeks.

More instructional time alone won’t remediate learning gaps, learning loss, and other challenges, conclude the report’s authors. And increasing time in school can be “financially costly policy that may not make sense for all states and districts.”

Other lower-cost approaches the report’s authors recommend include later start times for older students, having students take core academic classes earlier in the day when their attention is the highest, behavioral interventions to increase student attendance, school-wide systems to reduce disciplinary incidents, policies that limit cell phone use, and incentives to curb teacher absenteeism.

“At a minimum, districts should fiercely avoid reducing time in school.”

Allocated Total Time in U.S. Public Schools Across Schooling Levels

Source: “Time in School” by Matthew Kraft and Sarah Novicoff