Too Much Time On My Hands

What makes good charter schools tick? A recent Globe story: longer hours. An op-ed by Scot Lehigh sets up the issue this way:

A charter school student’s day averages 8.2 hours, compared with 6.1 hours at Boston’s traditional public schools, according to a new study done by the American Institutes for Research for the Boston Foundation, which also funded the Harvard-MIT work. That means charter students benefit from the equivalent of at least 62 additional school days each year....

In broad terms, what we have here is a collision of world views. From the perspective of many union teachers in traditional schools, faculty members need to be paid for most if not all of the additional time they work. But from the perspective of a taxpayer or educational consumer, charters are delivering longer days without getting extra dollars for doing so.

Here is the new study.

I fear AIR missed part of the Big Picture.

A wildly oversimplified formula for a school day: Learning = Quality * Quantity. And the study certainly mentions that you can't simply add Quantity wily-nilly. They don't try to oversimplify.

But they miss that the best charters obsess about the Quality first and foremost. Are kids focused and working hard? There's a ton of teacher and leader time that goes into creating that culture.

That's what Kay Merseth captures in her book: all of the systems needed for Quality, how principals need to obsessed about it, how it has to be the most important issue in teacher recruiting, hiring, and firing, how teachers have to spend a bunch of time each day (proactive and reactive) to flip kids from not working to working hard.

That's what I suspect Roland Fryer will find in his study of NYC charters. It's school culture that drives Quality. And, I think Quality needs to be at a certain baseline to have an increase in Quantity pay off.*

When we opened in 2000, we were a struggling charter. A typical class period was 80 minutes, instead of a typical 50 to 60. And school lasted until 4.30pm for all kids. More time = more learning, right?

But teachers found it hard to execute an 80 minute class. Sure, it's possible to do well. But we also didn't have the bandwidth to coach teachers on how to use that time effective.

So we cut back both the total hours and the typical class in an effort to boost the quality of a typical class. We ended up cutting it down until it reached 56 minutes, where it's held for several years. And the 4.30pm dismissal became a 3.00pm dismissal (only strugglers would stay until 4.30pm).

It worked. We were able to improve Quality. A better schoolwide culture in 2002 and 2003. So in 2004, we were able to expand Quantity again. We moved to a 5pm dismissal. But that was the year when we added MATCH Corps. So the additional time for kids did not mean additional burden on (already very hard-working) teachers.

The AIR study doesn't mention school culture, which is the first thing that every top principal I know talks about.

Quality first.

*The only exception to this is high-dosage 2-on-1 or 1-on-1 tutoring. I believe that can raise achievement even in schools with weak culture.

P.S. The picture is Styx; my very first cassette tape was this group; Too Much Time On My Hands is one of their hit songs. Click for must-watch video.