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As districts across the country implement Common Core, educators – such as these in Elverson, Pennsylvania, Calistoga, California, and Wilmington, Delaware – are calling for a restructuring of the school day so that students spend more time in each class. Instead of the typical class period of about 45 minutes, schools are lengthening classes to upwards of 90 minutes to cover all the material and allow teachers to change the way they teach to meet the new requirements.
Common Core, a set of standards in math and English in place in over 40 states, only directs what students should know at the end of each grade, but it’s also affecting how lessons are taught.
Jamie Wall, a math teacher at Brooklawn Middle School in Parsippany, New Jersey, used her state’s shift to Common Core to fulfill a teaching dream – her math students spending the entire period working collaboratively in groups – but says that her school’s schedule isn’t ideal for this kind of teaching.
“From the beginning of my teaching career, I didn’t want to just be up there and teach them,” said Wall. “I wanted to get them into groups and get them talking to each other about math concepts. I wanted them to develop math strategies and solve problems together. That all works very well for Common Core.”
“I teach in 40 minute periods,” added Wall. “This type of collaborative learning can be done in 40 minutes, but it’s hard.”
Other Common Core math supporters, often pointing to Japanese classrooms, have suggested that teachers could spend upwards of 15 minutes just discussing the ins and outs of a single problem.
“We haven’t heard a call specifically for block scheduling,” said Donna Harris-Aikens – Director of Education Policy and Practice at the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union – referring to a scheduling technique that doubles the typical 45-minute class period to 90 minutes.
“But what educators are calling for is more time. More time if we want to have kids do things like work collaboratively but also more time for educators to talk to each other about what changes might need to be made in what is taught and how it is taught,” she added.
“Most of the high performing schools we have seen do not maintain the 40- or 45-minute block schedule,” said Jennifer Davis, cofounder and president of the National Center on Time and Learning, a non-profit dedicated to redesigning and expanding school time. “In those schools, when you walk into a classroom you see four or five groups of kids, some are getting support through high-quality computer programs, some are working in a small group with a teacher and some are working in small groups just among themselves. It is very difficult to do that kind of rotation in a typical 45-minute block.”
Some see scheduling techniques that reduce the number of class periods a teacher teaches as not just an opportunity to change how classes are taught but as a way to add planning time for teachers.
Davis says this increased planning is critical as schools take on the Common Core.
“Teachers need to be grappling with the standards together,” said Davis. “They need to be sharing lesson plans and reviewing each other’s lesson plans. They need to be coming back together after being in the classroom and sharing what’s working and what’s not working, who got it and who didn’t get it. This kind of collaborative learning on the part of teachers is essential to the success of Common Core implementation.”
Both Harris-Aikens and Davis say scheduling decisions need to be made at the local level.
“Honestly, I think it is a school-by-school decision,” said Harris-Aikens. “Take a real look at what your kids are doing during the day and think about tweaks like alternating days, block scheduling, or the semester plan.”
Harris-Aikens advises schools to ask parents and students what they think before major schedule changes.
“Students, especially your high school students, will have strong opinions,” she added.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Common Core.