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Students at extremely poor high schools in California on average lose roughly 25 more school days a year — almost 14 percent of the school year — than students at higher income schools do. Interruptions, substitute teachers and test prep account for a large portion of the lost instructional time, according to a UCLA study released Nov. 18, 2014.
“These findings push us to think again about inequality in the schools,” said UCLA education professor John Rogers, a co-author of “It’s About Time: Learning Time and Educational Opportunity in California High Schools,” published by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access. “You have a quarter of the kids [here] in schools with concentrated poverty, and you see how unequal learning time is for these students.”
The inequities outlined in this report have little to do with school funding. In California, the state plays a large role in allocating school funds. That reduces the ability of wealthy towns to fund their schools more than low-income communities can.
“Differences in learning time between high and low poverty schools might actually be much more pronounced in states where high poverty schools receive less funding than schools in more affluent communities,” said Sanjiv Rao, a program officer at the Ford Foundation, which funded the UCLA study. (The Ford Foundation is among the various funders of The Hechinger Report.)
Rogers and his co-author, Nicole Mirra, surveyed almost 800 teachers about instructional time at nearly 200 high schools throughout California, representing all the regions and demographics of the 1,300 public high schools in the state. California’s two million high schoolers account for about one in eight public high school students in the nation.
The authors broke down the schools into three income categories, based on the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch. In the high poverty category, where 75 percent or more of the students qualify for the lunch program, the authors found that, on average, 30 more minutes of classroom time is lost per day due to interruptions, delays and disrupted routines than is lost at the wealthiest schools, where 25 percent or less of the students qualify for the lunch program. Since a school day includes six hours of instructional time, losing a half-hour per day adds up to 15 days over a 180-day school year.
A common disruption, for example, was a phone call from the main office during a lesson. Teachers reported that simple routines, such as settling the class down or distributing materials, take longer at high poverty schools. It may take only a minute, but the minutes add up. In a high poverty school, about 18 minutes per period are lost this way, compared with 13 minutes in a low poverty school — a five minute difference per class period.
The authors also found that incorporating new students, an indicator of housing instability in the community, was a chronic interrupter. “It’s factors outside of the school being brought into the school,” said Rogers.
An additional 10 schools days are lost at high poverty schools because of teacher absences, emergency lockdowns and preparation for standardized tests, the authors calculated. They found that low-income schools are disproportionately affected not only by teacher absences but also by low-quality substitute teachers. Rogers suggests that state policy makers consider creating a pool of high-quality substitute teachers to deploy to low-income high schools.
All schools are affected by standardized tests, but the authors found that teachers at low-income schools reported that even more instructional time was lost to test prep than at high income schools. “It’s a major drain on learning time at high poverty schools,” said Rogers.
Rogers cautioned that not every student at every high poverty school loses 30 minutes of instructional time a day and an additional 10 school days a year. It’s an average, calculated for all poor schools in California. Some students and schools suffer more lost learning time, some less.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.