Schools systems consistently wrestle with the question of closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students. While education policy wonks tout an array of solutions from charter schools to common assessments to after-school mentoring programs in an attempt to solve this lingering issue, often missing from the debate, is the issue of instructional time. According to this UCLA study, students in high-poverty schools lose 22.29 instructional days per year, while students in low-poverty schools only lose about 12.58 instructional days per year. How can we improve this?

When a system, for example, like DeKalb County Schools (73% free-and-reduced-lunch) reports more dropouts than a system such as Gwinnett County Schools (56% free-and-reduced-lunch), we must consider the socioeconomics of the district, and with it, a discussion about instructional time. (For 2013-2014, Gwinnett reported 1524 students who dropped out, while DeKalb reported 1746 students who dropped out. However, Gwinnett has 168,000 students and DeKalb has 100,000.)

Loss of Instruction 3

Loss of Instruction 4

If a loss of time like this is true for every year of school, that’s roughly 130 days less of instructional time during a student’s entire school career — almost an entire year of school less than their low-poverty counterparts.

While household socioeconomic status is the greatest predictor of success in high school and beyond, it seems that taking away an additional year of a student’s school career must be a factor that plays into lower outcomes for students in schools with a high population of students from low-income households.

In addition to this, during actual teacher-led instructional time, it seems that this, too, is reduced (see chart below). Teachers in high-poverty schools spend less time being able to teach because of the economic and social stressors that students deal with on a daily basis. Inevitably, these issues do not simply stay at home.

I’ve personally taught students dealing with homelessness, drug use, molestation and physical abuse. Students communicate their struggles with teachers they connect with, and because of this — as court-mandated reporters — we teachers must report these issues accordingly, while also handling each situation with compassion and love.

Today a fellow teacher at Cross Keys HS (named a “priority school” for low graduation rates) told me that last week she had a student come to her hysterically crying right before the beginning of class. To handle the situation, this teacher found another teacher (who had their planning period) to cover her class briefly while she escorted the student to the counselors’ office and got the student the assistance she needed. Sadly, issues like this in high-poverty schools (like ours which ranks 22 out of 25 high schools in DeKalb) occur daily at some place in the school, and student instructional time suffers as a result. (I’m not saying these types of situations don’t occur in high-income schools, but I am saying that it happens much more rarely, according to the data.)

Loss of Instruction 2

The series of charts I’ve included in this post documents the findings of this particular study of teachers in public schools across California, and I believe this information reveals one of the additional reasons that students in high-poverty schools fall behind: loss of instructional time.

Loss of Instruction 1

Teacher Absences at High-Poverty Schools

During the study, teachers were asked to “…report on two sorts of absences—days that they miss for professional development or other school purposes and then days missed due to illness or personal reasons. We found that teachers from High Poverty Schools reported more absences than teachers from Low Poverty Schools. Further, teachers from High Poverty Schools reported that, on average, they lost a higher proportion of the instructional day when substitutes covered their classes — presumably because, as we have noted, High Poverty Schools do not have access to sufficient quality substitutes. When we account for how many days of instruction are lost annually due to teacher absences, we see that High Poverty Schools lose four more days than Low Poverty Schools” (emphasis added).

For example, at CKHS, students are split between classes many times when no teacher is able to be found to cover a teacher’s class. In our English department, we often have two or three teachers absent with only one substitute from the county system. That means that teachers have to use their planning periods (see below) to cover the classes or that students have to be split between or among different classes. They find out this information by going to their classroom, reading a hand-written sign posted on the door (we are still waiting for the printers to actually be hooked up now that they have arrived), and then proceeding to their newly-assigned classroom. Many times the teachers accepting the students (who many times have 30+ students in their classroom to begin with) do not have attendance rosters (which is currently being addressed at our school), adding to confusion regarding absences and tardies.

More Long-Term Substitutes at High-Poverty Schools

High-poverty schools, at a ratio of 3.0 to 1.8 (per the study conducted in California), employ more long-term substitutes than their low-poverty counterparts. At Cross Keys High School this year, we did not get two (2) of our math positions filled until just over a month ago (sometime during October). We still have at least two permanent substitutes for positions that we have not been able to fill throughout the entire semester or for teachers who have quit mid-year. Since we are on a block schedule, this means that some students will have experienced an entire course or half of a course without a certified teacher. (At Cross Keys, letters are sent home to parents at our school to inform them that their student may or may not have a “highly qualified teacher” teaching their students.)

Delayed Start to Classes at High-Poverty Schools

As Rogers and Mirra state in their UCLA study: “The large delay in first period start time may be related to the lack of steady and reliable public transportation in many high-poverty communities.” Buses arrive late to Cross Keys HS on a weekly basis. Buses arrived more than 30 minutes after first block had begun yesterday (November 9). When these students come into class, not only are they confused, but the interruption also causes confusion for the rest of the class — especially, but not limited to, students with disabilities such as ADHD.

Teachers Covering Other Teachers’ Classes

Teachers in high-poverty schools frequently have a hard time acquiring substitute teachers. The reasons for this vary: the high-poverty school might be far away from substitute teachers, or the students may have more discipline issues which discourages substitute teachers from accepting requests.

This lack of substitutes in turn requires other teachers to use their planning period — normally spent grading papers, preparing lessons, and collaborating with colleagues — to cover other teachers’ classes (which I personally did today and which other teachers have had to do for me on other occasions). Because of this, every additional collaboration opportunity or professional development opportunity or faculty meeting feels like an additional “burden” in the minds of many teachers. Teachers already feel behind in their planning and grading, so any additional meeting instantly lowers morale for the general teacher.

Loss of Instruction 5

What I want to leave you with is this final note from the conclusion of the above-referenced UCLA study:

“No one could or would defend a system of public education that required students attending High Poverty Schools to finish their school year two weeks before their peers in Low Poverty Schools. Nor would anyone defend sending students from High Poverty Schools home a half hour early each day. Yet, in effect, California now supports an educational system that produces these effects, though it does so in a manner that obscures the underlying inequity.”

But, more than that, we will need to look with fresh eyes at improving learning time as a potential driver of equity reform. At high-poverty schools, we experience a myriad of issues that are — in many ways — endemic to our nature as high-poverty schools. However, to the extent possible, we need to minimize any losses to instructional time by doing the following:

  1. Improving substitute teacher availability and quality in high-poverty districts
  2. Ensuring buses arrive to school on time
  3. Ensuring teachers aren’t sending emails, creating lesson plans, or grading papers during instructional time
  4. Ensuring student schedules are correct from the beginning of the school year to minimize disruptions
  5. Continuing to employ (as CKHS does) student support specialists, counselors, and/or parent coordinators to handle some of the socioeconomic and emotional issues students may be facing
  6. Providing clear communication to minimize confusion for teachers and students (also to minimize disruptions)
  7. Providing high-poverty schools with sufficient space to teach their students (i.e. address overcrowding inequities)
  8. Providing high-poverty schools with sufficient technology so that over 50% of students can use technology on any given day (as opposed to the barely 19% that are currently able to use technology at CKHS). (Side note: as my YouTube video showed, the ThinkPads are barely usable as of 11/10/2015, so this too must be addressed.)
  9. Minimizing classroom disruptions like phone calls from other faculty or unexpected guests during class time
  10. Ensuring teachers have the necessary support/skills to manage the behavior of the students in their classes

If you personally do not volunteer (or work!) in a local school that experiences a high number of students from low-income households, I challenge you to try it out. The more that a community has relationships with teachers and students and faculty at a Title I school, the more they will understand the myriad and complexity of the issues these schools face on a daily basis — and can become a part of the solution.

For teachers and faculty, we need to continue to guard our students’ instructional time because every day matters for our kids.