Why “Time-on-Task” Hurts Kids (and Test Scores)

There are a number of phrases in education that make me wince every time I hear them and “time-on-task” is right up there with “strict fidelity.” Time-on-task refers to the amount of time students are actively engaged in learning.

The thinking goes like this: The more of something people do, the better they get at it. Therefore, if we have students for seven hours each day, we should maximize their time-on-task so they’ll learn more stuff and get higher test scores. We shouldn’t waste a minute, and we certainly shouldn’t squander time on breaks and recesses.

That kind of thinking is wrong.

Before we get to the academic reasons why schools should build in more breaks for students, let’s start with this simple fact: It’s humane.

The United Nations recognizes this. The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states, “Every prisoner who is not employed in outdoor work shall have at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily if the weather permits.” Maybe the UN should weigh in on recess time.

There’s also the law of diminishing returns. Put simply, doing more of something only works up to a point. After that point, performance suffers. This is seen in every field and there’s no reason to think it doesn’t happen to kids and their learning.

In one study, researchers recruited 31 students to learn a difficult computer task. The participants were split into three groups. A control group spent one hour training. A second group spent two hours on the task without stopping. A third group also trained for two hours, but they were given a one-hour break between sessions.

On the second day of the study, the control group had mastered the task better than the two-hour group, despite training for only half the time. Those who were given a break also outperformed the nonstop workers, even though the two groups had spent the same total time on the task. (SOURCE)

DeskTime, a productivity app that tracks employees’ computer use, looked at its data to study the behavior of its most productive workers. The highest-performing 10 percent tended to work for 52 straight minutes followed by a 17-minute break. Those 17 minutes were often spent away from the computer, said Julia Gifford at The Muse, by taking a walk, doing exercises, or talking to coworkers. (SOURCE)

Or consider the study of violinists conducted by performance expert Anders Ericsson at the Berlin Academy of Music. The best of the violinists practiced in sessions no longer than 90 minutes, and they took a break in between each one. They almost never practiced more than 4 ½ hours in a day. They  understood the law of diminishing returns.

Breaks aren’t just important for students’ performance and well-being, they’re essential.

In his newest book, When, Daniel Pink shares some research from Danish schools that found that the time of day students took national standardized tests impacted their scores. Pink writes:

“Students scored higher in the morning than in the afternoons. Indeed, for every hour later in the day the tests were administered, scores fell a little more. The effects of later-in-the-day testing were similar to having parents with slightly lower incomes or less education–or missing two weeks of a school year.”

It would seem that a simple way to improve student test scores would be to simply move testing times to the morning. But researchers discovered what might be an even easier remedy.

When those same Danish students had a twenty- to thirty-minute break to “eat, play, and chat” before a test, their scores increased. Researchers concluded that scores went down in the afternoon, but they went up by a higher amount after breaks. Pink writes:

“Taking a test after a twenty- to thirty-minute break leads to scores that are equivalent to students spending three additional weeks in the classroom and having somewhat wealthier and better-educated parents. And the benefits were greatest for the lowest-performing students.”

The irony — and it’s rich — is that schools’ intent on maximizing “time-on-task” to the extent that their students aren’t given frequent breaks, especially in the afternoon, is actually sabotaging their own stated goal of improving student test scores.

Instead of adding days or hours to the calendar, or forcing our lowest students to do even more work, we need only to acknowledge the law of diminishing returns. Kids should be allowed to do as the violinists do and take more breaks.

Pink helpfully offers suggestions based on research about what kinds of breaks work best:

Short and Frequent

Short, frequent breaks are more effective than occasional, longer ones. Which means most schools do recess wrong. It would be better to have students run around for five minutes after each 45-minute learning block than it would be to give one 30-minute recess in the afternoon with no other breaks.

Move

Having students use technology during their breaks is better than no break at all, but getting them moving is better.

Be Social

We are social animals. Time alone can be good, but time with others, especially if students get to choose who those others are, is better.

Get Outside

Research shows that people who take short walks outside return with better moods and greater replenishment than people who walk inside. Nature seems to have a rehabilitating effect on people.

Detach

Don’t ask students to multi-task during breaks. Don’t have them keep working on their papers while eating a snack. That’s not productive. For the best breaks, get students out of the classroom doing things that have nothing to do with learning.

I’m sure you’ve already figured out that the easiest way schools could accomplish all of the above is by giving kids frequent outdoor recesses. People often complain that education hasn’t changed in 100 years. This is one example of how it would be better for kids (and test scores) if that was true.

 

How would you like to read future articles from Teacher Habits without stumbling onto them? There is a way. You can have them emailed directly to you! Just sign up here!

 

A Guide to Diversity in the Classroom

The following is a guest post by Joy Wenke, CEO of Daybreak Lesson Plans.

 

Learning is the process of experiencing something new. Increasingly, students in grades K through 12 have the opportunity to learn something new every time they come into class, because their classmates come from more diverse backgrounds than ever before. American public schools have become more diverse over the last 25 years, offering students a broader range of backgrounds and cultures to experience as they interact with their classmates. Teachers, among their other duties, have the responsibility of creating a classroom environment in which all students feel welcome and comfortable enough to learn. However, cultural diversity isn’t the only type of diversity teachers need to be aware of in their everyday work.

Diversity in the classroom also means recognizing that every student is an individual with his or her own unique needs. What’s more, each student can present a unique challenge to a teacher. For example, some children may have more difficulty sitting still during class, while others may have emotional issues that require greater patience and understanding. Some students may learn at a slower rate than their classmates and require additional attention, while others may learn faster and become bored more easily. Even in a classroom in which every student comes from the same cultural or socioeconomic background, diversity is a factor with which teachers must be able to contend.

Dealing with diversity is a skill that all teachers need to have in order to be successful. Failing to create lesson plans that account for all the individual needs of their students can put some children at risk for falling behind and missing out on future opportunities. Not having an inclusive classroom environment can stunt students’ development as people. In effect, harming their ability to learn the socialization skills they will need as adults in the modern world. The following guide features some tips teachers can implement to successfully address diversity of all kinds in their classrooms.

 

Author bio: Joy Wenke, CEO of Daybreak Lesson Plans, has worked in both urban and rural areas for more than 33 years as a bilingual teacher, coach and as an educational consultant. Throughout her career, the majority of the students she taught were identified as English Language Learners. Along the way, she got her M.S. in educational leadership as well as an administrative credential. Her passion is to help teachers grow in their personal practices. She facilitates educators to better meet the needs of all their students by purposefully and meaningfully using academic language across the content areas in speaking, reading and writing. 

Deyshia Hargrave, Salary Schedules, and the Bad Options for Dissatisfied Veteran Teachers

This past week, Louisiana middle school teacher Deyshia Hargrave was thrust into the national spotlight after a marshal removed her from a school board meeting, pushed her to the floor, and arrested her for having the audacity to question her superintendent about the $38,000 pay raise (and car) he’d just accepted.*

Hargrave graduated from college in 2007, which means she’s been teaching for about 10 years. In 2016, she was named her district’s Teacher of the Year. She’s pursuing a master’s degree in administration. She’s reportedly outspoken, described as a “passionate education advocate,” who has “given her voice for many of those she works with,” according to the school’s write-up of her award.

She’s also clearly disgruntled. Her comments reflected frustration over teacher pay, burgeoning class sizes, increasing hoops to jump through, and a lack of recognition for the hard work teachers had done to improve scores in the district. She called the superintendent’s raise a “slap in the face.” That’s a teacher who’s not real happy with her employer. So what are her options, and if you find yourself in a similarly dissatisfying situation, what are yours?

In his book Originals, Adam Grant identified four options every disgruntled employee has. They are:

  1. Persistence — You grin (or don’t) and bear it. You keep working hard, accepting that nothing is going to change.
  2. Neglect — You mail it in. You show up but just go through the motions. Neglect describes the 57% of teachers who are not engaged at work.
  3. Voice — You try to change your circumstances by speaking up and fighting for change.
  4. Exit — You quit your job and find one with better circumstances.

If you take no action, the status quo persists. So only two of those have the chance of changing your situation.

You can work to improve things or you can walk.

Hargrave has obviously chosen to fight.  That’s a perilous choice in Louisiana. As she herself referenced in her comments, Louisiana legislators, assuming, as many legislatures have this last decade, that their teachers are likely pretty shitty, passed Act 1, which weakened tenure protections and gave principals and superintendents the final authority in personnel decisions, meaning they can more easily cast off the dead weight (or, you know, teachers that are mouthy and bring negative attention to their districts).

Hargrave explained that she was speaking for others because they were afraid. “I feel like I’m speaking on behalf of more than just myself, more than just Kaplan teachers, I’m speaking as a group,” she said. But given Lousiana’s legislators’ contempt for teachers, one has to wonder what will become of Hargrave when the furor dies down and the illumination of the national spotlight turns away.

The only other option Hargrave has is to leave. No one could blame her if she did. After all, I don’t know too many people who would want to continue working for:

  • a boss they don’t respect
  • a district that doesn’t give its teachers raises for years, in spite of improved outcomes.
  • a Board that responds to legitimate concerns voiced at a public meeting with removal and arrest
  • A Board President that refers to a former Teacher of the Year as a “poor little woman.” SOURCE

But here again, teachers like Hargrave are presented with a dilemma. While leaving might make the most sense, it’s not such an easy choice for a veteran teacher. If you’re an engineer who feels disrespected by your employer, you can quit and go work somewhere else without much consequence. Same goes for doctors, lawyers, managers, and nearly every other professional. Indeed, research shows that those who change jobs frequently make more money over their careers. (Read why here.)

But thanks to salary schedules and the way incentives work in education, Hargrave can’t leave without sacrificing thousands of dollars. Having 10 or so years in with her district, she stands to ruin her career earnings if she opts to leave a place where she’s grown disgruntled.

Here is her district’s salary schedule:

She’s probably making somewhere around $42,000 a year. In a just world, a former Teacher of the Year with a track record of results would be able to send her resume to nearby districts and make more money. But that’s not what happens in education. There is a far greater incentive for districts to control costs than there is to improve student achievement. So even though Hargrave (and thousands of other veteran teachers across this country) could improve a district’s outcomes, most won’t pay them for their expertise. Hargrave would be lucky to get five years and she’d most likely start at Step 1 in her new district, costing her thousands of dollars.

Hargrave is doing the only thing a veteran teacher who wants the benefits of mobility can do: become an administrator. One study in Texas found that the average tenure for a high school principal is just over three years. It’s not because principals are especially nomadic. Education is hard. People get worn out and seek a fresh start. Administrators can start anew without taking a huge hit in pay. Teachers, thanks to salary schedules and hiring districts’ penny-pinching, can’t.

We can feel bad for Hargrave. But this is about thousands of effective, dissatisfied veteran teachers just like her. Some of them risk their careers by fighting for change. Some give up and quit the profession altogether. Some quietly persist. But many, many teachers are just showing up, going through the motions, putting in the hours until they can retire. That’s bad for everybody, but given their poor options, can anyone really blame them?

 

SOURCE: Deyshia Hargrave: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

* Technically, she was arrested for “remaining after being forbidden” and resisting an officer. But she was removed for asking her boss a question that the Board President deemed non-germane, even though it was totally germane.

 

 

 

Growing Tomatoes in Wintertime

The following is a guest post by Kathy McBroom. She blogs for teachers and Christians at Real Life. Real Faith. 

 

Growing Tomatoes in Wintertime

Kathy McBroom

 

This past summer my two accidental tomato plants produced some amazing tomatoes. I say ‘accidental’ because while visiting a nursery last spring with some friends, in a weak moment I bought two tomato plants. We were scheduled to leave for Haiti the following week, so I arranged for a friend to come by and water the plants. I wished the tomatoes well. At our house plants must have a will to live.

When we came back, all I could say was, “Wow.” It was like the plants had been watered with steroids. They were huge; some of the best tomatoes I’d ever grown.

I was advised to save some seeds as starters for next year. I did, and there is now a small bag of seeds hidden in a kitchen drawer. After I pulled the dead plants out of the planters, I noticed there was a section that was still alive. I plucked it off and stuck it in a paper cup. I added some water. And then that thing grew and grew. I moved it into a pot. It grew some more. So I repotted it. It is now November, and I am in unknown territory. The plant is huge, unwieldy. I’m out of my league with these tomatoes, unsure what will happen next and what I will do about it. But I can’t let them go. I’m all in.

I never meant to be a teacher. I was Miss Playful in college, not much direction at all. On a whim, I added an English/Secondary Ed minor and student taught. I assumed it wouldn’t last. Teaching, like growing tomatoes, was something I had fallen into without much of a plan. I didn’t know what I was doing. Then, like my tomatoes, something unexpected happened. I fell in love with the kids — high achievers, low achievers, and all those in the middle. I started spending hours planning, and still do even though I ought to have it down by now. The seasons that I was out of teaching, I was drawn back to the classroom. The bells. Schools lunches. Pep rallies. Homecoming.

In spite of never majoring in English, I’ve now taught it to high schoolers for nearly 23 years. I still find myself sitting in English department meetings and having no idea what others are talking about. But I have never been a quitter.

The kids have changed. I’ve changed. Education has changed. The emphasis on data and test scores and the constant game-changing is confusing, annoying, and frustrating. These days I am surrounded by younger teachers with sharper minds, but I’m not done yet.

Like that tomato plant out by my garage that grew to an astonishing size, I can’t seem to let it go. I can’t give it up.

Maybe it’s pride. Maybe it’s an overachiever attitude. Maybe it’s because even though I’m now over 50, I can still remember things that my teachers taught me. I like a challenge. I can’t say no. I can’t give up until I’ve given all that I have.

I got into teaching the same way I got into growing tomatoes — on a whim. But in spite of the constant challenges, I won’t walk away. I’ll continue to stretch, to grow, and to ripen. I won’t allow myself to wither on the vine. I’m all in.

 

Why Protecting Your Time is Unselfish

I just finished publishing a 10-part series on how teachers can prevent burnout by vigilantly protecting their time.  Over the course of it, I recommended not grading homework, not creating new content, not taking student writing home, and saying no a lot more often.

One might read those articles and get the impression that I’m advocating for teachers to be selfish. To only look out for number one. To not do anything that doesn’t benefit them.

Clearly, a school can’t function if every teacher acts only in her own best interest. Compromise is essential. Many hands make light work. No organization can succeed unless it’s composed of more givers than takers.

But schools also don’t function very well if they’re full of burned out teachers. And the data suggests that lots of teachers are burned out or well on their way.

It’s hard to find research on how many teachers experience burnout. But we do know that six in ten teachers describe their job as always or often stressful. Only 30% say they are engaged at work. Just 15% “strongly agree” that they’re enthusiastic about the profession.

We also know that the great majority of teachers don’t stick with the job long enough to collect their full pensions. According to pension expert Chad Aldeman, only one in five teachers reach retirement age (Check your state’s numbers here). In spite of a financial incentive to remain in the classroom, only 20% do so. And one has to wonder how many of those are merely hanging on, teaching because it’s all they’ve known or because they’re old dogs who don’t want to learn new tricks. It seems likely that a lot of teachers burn out before they’ve spent 30 years on the job.

Protecting your own hours is important for career longevity, but it’s about more than you. It’s also about helping others. Just as people who have taken intentional steps to accumulate wealth have more money to give to others,  teachers who proactively protect their time and energy have a greater capacity to give at school. Who do you feel less guilty about asking for assistance, the overwhelmed rookie or the veteran who always seems to be two steps ahead?

The best thing — the most selfless, giving thing — that teachers can do for their coworkers and their students is to protect their time and energy. They should go home shortly after the kids have left, and find ways to reduce the amount of work they take with them. They should detach from work and eat an early dinner, followed by exercise, relaxation, fun, or time with people they care about. They should get at least seven hours of sleep. Happy, well-rested teachers, like every other professional, are better at their jobs. They’re also in a better position to help others.

There’s a tweet I read a couple days ago that sums it up perfectly:

Amen.

If you’re struggling with this mindset or you just need practical tips for how to effectively cut back on the hours you work, you’ve got just one more day to sign up for the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s the best investment you’ll ever make for yourself. It’s also a great choice if you want to have the time and energy to give more at work. Enrollment ends tomorrow, January 9. Act now!