Only a Matter of Time

Where are the Kids?

09/03/2009  |  JOHN R. WALKUP, PH.D.

The sign on the classroom door read “Our school is proud to begin instruction at 8:15 am,” but it was already 8:17 and no one was around. A janitor wheeled up in a golf cart, so I promptly approached him: “Where are the kids?” He pointed in the direction of the playground. From my vantage point I couldn’t see the kids, but I could hear them. “The bell just rang; they’ll be here in a moment.”

Sure enough, a row of third-graders rounded the corner and lined up in front of the door, like aircraft on a flight deck. By 8:25 am, they had managed to find their seats while the teacher sat at her desk and poked away at the online roll sheet. After a couple of minutes she rose and assumed her traditional position at the front of the class. “Take out your homework, and pass it forward.” (Gee, why weren’t they doing this five minutes ago?) The public address system promptly barged in, announcing the birthdays — all twelve of them — of staff and children.

In all, eighteen minutes were lost before any real learning began. “Does this happen every morning?” I asked the principal at the end of the day. “Eighteen minutes?” At first, the principal began to rationalize the morning procedure. “We want children to come early and play on the grounds; it wakes them up and sets a fun tone for the day.” Gradually, however, she began to acknowledge the problem — a lack of urgency on part of her staff toward the importance of what we call in the research “academic engagement time.”

So What?

In all, eighteen minutes lost each day constitutes anywhere from 35 to 50 hours of lost instructional time during the course of a school year. I ask teachers and administrators to think about lost time in terms of vocabulary words. Using the full range of language strategies, students can learn a new word in about five minutes. Eighteen minutes lost each day, therefore, amounts to roughly 360 vocabulary words that they could have learned during that time. Over the span of a student’s school career, this amounts to over 4000 words, a large chunk of a typical adult’s working vocabulary (roughly 20,000 words).

Four thousand words. Lost. But there is no need to worry, since students will learn many of these words at home... if they live in affluent communities. As for poor students, especially those who live in homes where English is not the principal language, they will unlikely recover such opportunities.

States all over the country are already trying to push through legislation to increase either the school day or school year, or both. The economy has all but wiped out many of these initiatives, even though the Federal government has recently picked up the torch. To save money, California is even trying to cut the number of school days. If we can recover 50 hours of academic engagement time, however, we will have gained the equivalent of eight days of instruction. Clearly, improving the way in which we avail the existing school day will become increasing crucial if schools are to improve test scores.

Committing to Excellence

Schools can devote 95 percent of the allocated class time to academic engagement. I have seen it done. But to achieve such a goal, the teaching staff and the administration must make a concerted effort to understand the sources of lost time and implement changes to correct the problems.

In many schools, classroom academic engagement time — the percentage of time in which students are engaged academically — can be as low as 60%. But in a weird way, that is the good news. After all, a school hiring an education consultant is, in a sense, “looking for trouble.” If a car is not getting the mileage an owner thinks it should, the last thing he wants to hear from his mechanic is, “Everything checked out just dandy.” A low academic engagement time points to considerable opportunities to improve.

Here is a thought to ponder: If we increase academic engagement time by 15 percent, we will have recovered the equivalent of a full period of instruction. This result is akin to extending the school day by an hour without the expenses and headaches.

Time Usage

It is March, 2005 in Porterville, CA, and the principal and I are not having a good day.  I am joining an elementary school principal through a series of observations. In the first period, the teacher urged us to move on. “We are taking a quiz today, not much to see here.” I responded by telling her that we would like to observe the session anyway, to which she obliged. The principal, however, insisted that we skip the class and observe another. The next class featured a review of the previous day’s lesson, followed by another class devoted to students working individually on math worksheets. As the end of the day neared, I turned to the principal, “Where can we find a lesson?”

In all, we observed over 25 classroom sessions throughout the week and witnessed only two sessions in which new learning content was introduced.  The rest of the week was filled with review, quizzes, tests, and independent practice. “Do your teachers ever complain that there isn’t enough time in the school year to cover the standards?” The principal responded to my mildly rhetorical query, “Sure, all the time.” We looked over our observation rubrics once again. “I think you now know how to respond to their complaints.”

Although we all want to see more time in classrooms devoted to academic engagement, we also need to realize that not all time usage is equally effective. In my experience, students are rarely taught enough new content.  Too many review sessions indicate that lessons lack sufficient concept development. A preponderance of quizzes and tests is a dead giveaway that teachers are failing to employ adequate questioning strategies during lessons. (unfinished)

What to Do?

While observing classrooms in Connecticut, I was heartened to see the sign “Do Not Use after 9 AM” taped to the public address system at an inner-city high school. My good spirits remained until 9:35 am, when the school secretary used the system to interrupt the chemistry class I was observing to announce that band practice had been postponed. In fact, the public address system was used all day.

Policies alone do not improve the academic climate of a school. The staff at the inner city high school had the right policy, but like the kamikaze pilot on his seventh mission, lacked the commitment to match their intentions.

So how can schools recover lost instructional time? Like many education reform processes, enhanced time usage requires adherence to a continual quality-control model, an adaptation of the familiar cycle of inquiry to the school level.

The Steps are Straightforward to Perform

1. Time classroom sessions to uncover the problems. To make this easy, we have created free software specifically designed for this purpose that you can load onto your laptop. (

2. Discuss the results with fellow teachers and administrators. Avoid merely blaming students for being off-task.

3. Adjust policies concerning the behaviors of teachers and staff that affect academic engagement time.

4. Faithfully adhere to the policy changes. Policies without action are worthless.

5. Start the process (steps 1- 4) over again.

In some instances, a minute of lost time at the very beginning of class is unavoidable. Use this time to make announcements on the public address system. If you are going to lose two minutes at the beginning of class due to transitions, you may as well kill two birds with one stone.

John R. Walkup, Ph.D. is president of The Standards Company LLC in Clovis, CA. For more information, visit
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