Reimagining the School Day
The minutes and hours of the school day are critical to build knowledge, foster student motivation, and drive student outcomes. To make the most of precious instructional time, teachers must first develop engaging lessons that meet the various needs of students. This requires teachers to collaborate, plan, and reflect outside of instructional time. Effective school schedules maximize the time teachers spend with their students but also recognize teachers’ additional responsibilities beyond instructional time. Unfortunately, not enough schools successfully balance these priorities.
Teachers in the United States spend far more time engaged in active instruction than teachers in other high-performing countries.1 Based on self-reported data, teachers in the United States spend 27 hours teaching out of 45 hours of work per week.2 Compare this with teachers in Singapore, who teach for only 17 hours per week, or teachers in Finland, who teach for a total of 21 hours per week.3 Schools in these countries prioritize time for planning and collaboration, recognizing that developing and executing lessons take time and preparation.4 According to a recent analysis of more than 140 school districts, the average length of a U.S. teacher’s workday is 7.5 hours.5 In another analysis of more than 120 school districts, the most common length of time allotted for planning was 45 minutes per day.6 In this short time, teachers must grade student work, plan for future lessons, engage with families, and complete necessary paperwork. As a result, teachers have little time to plan or collaborate with peers.7
The squeeze for time to plan lessons and complete other administrative tasks shapes a school’s professional environment and, ultimately, affects the quality of instruction. In a recent survey from the American Federation of Teachers, one of teachers’ two most cited “everyday stressors” was time pressure.8 As teachers are largely separate from other educators during instruction, lack of time for collaboration can be very isolating. More than half of lower secondary school teachers in the United States report that they do not teach jointly or observe other teachers.9 Such practices can improve teaching quality by granting teachers opportunities to receive feedback on their lesson execution and infuse new best practices into their repertoire.
In addition, providing teachers with more time to plan and attend to other responsibilities throughout the school day creates systematic opportunities to support new teachers and stretch more seasoned teachers—increasing the likelihood of teacher retention. During this structured planning time, new teachers should receive the coaching and personalized training they need to maximize their effectiveness and meet their professional goals. Meanwhile, experienced teachers can pursue leadership roles or coach new teachers.
Fortunately, schools can look to several promising models to change their typical schedules. The Center for American Progress compiled five of these innovative school schedules. Some of these schedules have already been implemented in schools across the country to improve instruction and ensure that teachers have ample time to teach, prepare, and develop their craft. CAP has also included teachers’ ideas for alternatives to the traditional school day model.
While each example schedule varies, there were similarities in how school leaders and teachers at each school reimagined the use of time. These innovative schedules all included:
- Additional time for planning and collaboration
- Flexible instructional blocks to differentiate content to student need
- Opportunities for small group instruction or student-directed learning
Innovative school schedules: Example schedules from schools across the country
Guilmette Elementary School, Lawrence, Massachusetts
What’s different about this schedule?
Guilmette Elementary School in Lawrence, Massachusetts, added more than 260 hours of instructional time to the school year and built in common planning time by extending the school day and strategically aligning grade team schedules. The schedule also allows for targeted intervention and enrichment opportunities for all students. (see Table 1) Students follow a similar schedule on Mondays through Thursdays. On Fridays, students participate in high-quality enrichment programming from noon to 2:30 p.m., which is led by community partners. These enrichment activities include art, music, yoga, and cooking. Teachers participate in professional development and planning at that time.10
Operations and cost
The extra instructional hours are a significant cost. The district’s teacher contract provides teachers with a stipend of $2,500 per year for added hours that is distributed evenly across their paychecks. Moreover, the quality of the enrichment programs offered on Friday is dependent on the community partners that teach the programs. Guilmette has worked to find high-quality, affordable partners.11
In the four years since Guilmette has implemented the new schedule, its English language arts and math proficiency scores have steadily improved; since 2013, Guilmette outperformed other elementary schools in the district. More information is available on the school’s report card.12
- Add 260 or more instructional hours each school year
- Provide collaborative planning time for teachers
- Create added opportunities for enrichment and targeted intervention that focuses on acceleration
Achievement First Greenfield middle school schedule, New Haven, Connecticut
What’s different about this schedule?
Greenfield schools, which are a part of the Achievement First network, designed a schedule that leverages four modalities of learning: self-directed learning; small group learning; large group instruction, and immersive expeditions.13 Students engage in daily self-directed learning to build responsibility and differentiate the pace of their learning. During this time, students use independent work or technology to review new concepts and move through mastery of content at their own pace. Students also participate in small group learning in sections of 14 to 16 students to dig into specific topics and receive individual feedback. Larger group instruction is reserved for seminars, debates, and experiments.
Every eight weeks, students engage in immersive expeditions for one to two weeks that explore a specific issue and apply skills to the real world. Expeditions such as creating a play, television show, or movie allow them to use writing, improvisation, and teamwork skills to bring stories to life. For example, in the expedition “Make your story come to life,” students write and produce scenes or short plays to be performed by other actors. They engage with a professional theater company for storytelling workshops and go on behind-the-scenes tours.14
Interactive digital learning is a key element of the Greenfield model. A cloud-based Personalized Learning Platform, or PLP, takes the place of traditional textbooks. Students use a laptop to access their online self-directed content, track progress toward their goals, and take assessments to demonstrate mastery of concepts. This system minimizes teachers’ work and increases transparency of student progress. Teachers or students do not need to input results to track progress; the platform does it automatically. Teachers, students, and families can log in to access student progress anywhere with an internet connection. It also helps the school communicate with parents and families.15
Every teacher is responsible for leading one instructional area—either humanities, math, science, writing, or social studies. This specialization allows teachers to focus on achieving ambitious results in their content area. A yearly pacing calendar identifies where students must perform at every point in the year in order to be on track with these ambitious outcomes. Teachers use pacing reports each day to determine where students are performing relative to the bar and to adjust their instruction in ways that will maximize the number of students who are on and ahead of pace.16
In addition, Greenfield differentiates teachers’ roles and schedules to allow for specialization, planning, and life balance.17 This includes collaborative planning time for all teachers, differentiated coaching, and professional development, as well as growth opportunities based on teachers’ skills and experience. Greenfield also offers a staggered teaching schedule for more experienced teachers.
Within each grade, students are organized into goal teams of 10 to 12 students and assigned a goal coach. These teams meet daily in order to set and reflect on academic, life habit, or enrichment goals; deepen relationships with the goal coach and other goal team members; and build habits of success. Within goal teams, students are paired off with another student, called a running partner. These pairs provide mutual support and accountability to one another as they strive for ambitious short- and long-term goals. Goal teams are led by a goal coach who is a staff member in the school. The goal coach works closely with one goal team to build community and to be a primary support for each student and running partner pair.18
Operations and cost
The ongoing operation of this schedule is not more costly than other schedules that Achievement First operates in its network. Core to Achievement First’s mission is to operate with the same public dollars as traditional district schools in the geographies where it operates.19
The Greenfield schools piloted the model in kindergarten and middle school grades, all of which saw proficiency exceed or equal the scores of other Achievement First schools in Connecticut after just one year. Kindergartners exceeded 90 percent proficient rates in reading, and 60 percent of students demonstrated at least 75 percentile growth in math. For middle school grades, average scores on English language arts weekly quizzes ranked first or second in the overall Achievement First Connecticut network. Fifth grade math scores exceeded the network average, but sixth grade scores were below the average.20 For more information on socioemotional growth, review the Achievement First’s Greenfield Schools Year 1 Pilot.21
- Allow for accelerated, differentiated academics through four modalities of learning: self-directed learning time; small group learning; large group learning; and immersive expeditions
- Build in time for enrichment
- Foster habits of success in all kids, including curiosity, personal growth, empathy, gratitude, drive, and teamwork
- Emphasize the importance of student, family, and staff motivation
- Differentiate teacher roles based on experience and create more time for planning for all instructional staff
- Reduce turnover by finding ways to accommodate senior teachers who need more flexible schedules
Generation Schools secondary schedule, Brooklyn, New York
What’s different about this schedule?
Generation Schools Network’s secondary school model creates up to 30 percent more learning time than traditional public schools in New York City and provides opportunities for differentiated instruction. It also reduces student-to-teacher ratios and overall teacher workloads to facilitate the development of supportive teacher-student relationships.22
Furthermore, teachers have more time for collaboration and professional development. All teachers, as part of their approximately 180-day work year, participate in a one- to two-week Summer Institute dedicated to collaborative planning in preparation for the school year.23 In addition, grade teams have two weeks of professional collaborative time staggered throughout the year when their students are in intensives. This is in addition to the collaborative time that teachers have every day.24
To reduce teacher workload and increase instructional time, the Generation Schools Network differentiates instructional roles—foundation, studio, and intensive teachers. This allows the school to build on a wider range of teachers’ strengths and to design roles and responsibilities that help teachers be effective and reduce turnover. In addition, it reduces teachers’ student load. Teachers have 75 or fewer students daily compared with their peers in New York City traditional public high schools, who often teach 150 students daily.25 The model organizes teachers into grade level teams and a college and career intensives team. The college and career intensives team rotates from grade to grade over the course of the year, spending a month with students exploring college and career pathways. Teachers on that designated grade team are not responsible for students that month and can use that time for collaboration and breaks. By staggering teacher breaks, Generation Schools Network expands the instructional year for students without increasing the number of working days for teachers.26
Every student also has a differentiated schedule that fits their needs. Students participate in extended foundation courses—including interdisciplinary courses on humanities or science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM—which teach required subjects for all students as well as have various studio courses based on their interests. Studio courses include art history, physical education, art, foreign languages, or advanced sciences.27
Operations and cost
Generation Schools’ model reconfigures the same number of staff members who are employed in a conventional school model so that each school can offer much more planning time to teachers and instructional time to students without increasing staff costs, which are a majority of a school’s budget. Depending on how districts budget, this type of schedule may require additional costs for maintenance or transportation.28
Generation Schools Network has improved student achievement and graduation rates. Brooklyn Generation School, or BGS, has improved attendance, course completion, and graduation rates. At 69 percent, the four-year graduation rate at BGS has matched that for the city overall—70 percent—and outperformed schools with a similar demographic of students. These achievements are especially remarkable, as 85 percent of BGS’ students enter high school behind or significantly behind. In addition, 100 percent of the 2016 graduating class was accepted into college—many receiving multiple admissions and significant financial aid to make the opportunity real.29
- Increase instructional time for all students and opportunities to differentiate instruction
- Reduce student-to-teacher ratios and overall teacher workloads to facilitate the development of supportive teacher-student relationships
- Integrate collaborative planning time for teacher teams
Model school schedules designed by teachers
Model elementary school schedule
Created by Lexie Woo, fourth and fifth grade teacher in Queens, New York
What’s different about this schedule?
This schedule allows educators the opportunity to improve their instruction through strategic collaboration with colleagues, additional planning time, and ongoing feedback from administrators.
The timing of instructional blocks rotates to diffuse the negative impact of time-sensitive factors, such as tardiness, early dismissals, fatigue, medication use, and attention span. In addition, each subject has a double instructional block once per week, providing time for innovative educational practices, including multidisciplinary learning; project-based learning; and science, technology, engineering, art and design, and math, or STEAM, and STEM. This allows students to engage in a more self-directed and autonomous educational experience, growing as independent thinkers and doers.
With this dynamic schedule, teachers can select preferred preparation times, allowing teachers to shape their day to fit their working style. In other words, teachers can deliver instruction at the height of their energy.30
- Create more teacher planning time and develop more opportunities for teachers to receive feedback on their instruction
- Allow teachers to self-select preparation periods to ensure that the timing works for their teaching and working styles
- Offer double instructional blocks for each subject throughout the week
- Rotate the timing of instructional blocks
Model high school schedule
Created by Crischelle Navalta, high school teacher in Donna, Texas; Jillian Harkins, high school teacher in New Haven, Connecticut; Mary Kreuz, high school teacher in Toledo, Ohio; Megan Williams, eighth grade teacher in Washington, D.C.; and Amanda Zullo, high school teacher in Saranac Lake, New York
What’s different about this schedule?
This schedule strategically minimizes teachers’ workloads to ensure that they have time to build their content expertise. In addition, teachers have additional time apart from active instruction to collaborate with their content team, plan independently, or assume a leadership position.31
- Reduce instructional load by ensuring that teachers teach no more than two different course subjects, and limit teaching time to only 60 percent of a teacher’s day
- Build in approximately 40 percent of the day for conference time, leadership roles beyond the classroom, common planning time with content or grade team, and professional development
Tasked to deliver differentiated, high-quality instruction that prepares students for the social and academic challenges in college and beyond, schools must push their thinking on how they allocate time throughout the school day. Innovative school schedules should meet diverse student needs and ensure that all teachers are primed to deliver engaging, rigorous content. As this issue brief demonstrates, various models already exist to accomplish these goals. As schools across the country reimagine their school day schedules, they will be most successful if they customize the use of time to meet content needs rather than adapting content to fit a fixed schedule.
Meg Benner is a Senior Consultant at the Center for American Progress. Lisette Partelow is the Director of K-12 Strategic Initiatives at the Center.
- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators” (2014), Table D4.1, available at http://www.oecd.org/edu/Education-at-a-Glance-2014.pdf.
- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “TALIS 2013 Results: An International Perspective on Teaching and Learning” (2014), Table 6.12, available at http://www.istruzione.it/allegati/2014/OCSE_TALIS_Rapporto_Internazionale_EN.pdf.
- Ibid.; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA): Results from PISA 2012” (2012), available at http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/PISA-2012-results-US.pdf.
- National Council on Teacher Quality, “The NCTQ Teacher Trendline: A snapshot of district-level teacher policies from NCTQ’s Teacher Contract Database” (2016), available at http://us1.campaign-archive2.com/?u=c9b11da2ceffae94e1dc196f6&id=0c8870e3fa&e=a225322446.
- National Council on Teacher Quality, “The NCTQ Teacher Trendline: A snapshot of district-level teacher policies from NCTQ’s Teacher Contract Database” (2015), available at http://www.nctq.org/commentary/article.do?id=186.
- Linda Darling-Hammond, Ruth Chung Wei, and Alethea Andree, “How High-Achieving Countries Develop Great Teachers” (Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, 2010), available at https://edpolicy.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/how-high-achieving-countries-develop-great-teachers.pdf.
- American Federation of Teachers, “Quality of Worklife Survey” (2015), available at http://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/worklifesurveyresults2015.pdf.
- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Country Note: Results From TALIS 2013: United States of America” (2013), available at http://www.oecd.org/unitedstates/TALIS-2013-country-note-US.pdf.
- Personal communication from Lori Butterfield, principal, Guilmette Elementary School, September 2016 to January 2017.
- Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, “2015 Massachusetts School Report Card Overview: Gerard A. Guilmette,” available at http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/reportcard/SchoolReportCardOverview.aspx?linkid=105&orgcode=01490022&fycode=2015&orgtypecode=6 (last accessed January 2017).
- Achievement First Greenfield, available at http://www.afgreenfieldschools.org/ (last accessed January 2017).
- Personal communication from Jennifer Lindsay, project director, Achievement First Greenfield, October 2016 to January 2017.
- Personal communication from Lindsay; Deborah Sawch, “A Case Study of Achievement First’s Greenfield Schools Year 1 Pilot” (Achievement First Greenfield and Transcend Education, 2016), available at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55ca46dee4b0fc536f717de8/t/57b7688aff7c50e4a7e9cc60/1471637645702/AF+Greenfield+Year+1+Pilot+Case+Study+2016.pdf.
- Ibid.; Sawch, “A Case Study of Achievement First’s Greenfield Schools Year 1 Pilot.”
- Personal communication from Lindsay.
- Sawch, “A Case Study of Achievement First’s Greenfield Schools Year 1 Pilot.”
- Personal communication from Jonathan Spear, co-founder and former chief learning officer, and Wendy Loloff Piersee, chief executive officer, Generation Schools Network, July to August 2016.
- Wendy Loloff Piersee, “Staying Focused: Using the Data to Support West Generation Academy Students,” Generation Schools Network, August 20, 2014, available at http://generationschools.org/education-non-profit-blog-generation-schools/2014/08/20/staying-focused:-using-the-data-to-support-west-generation-academy-students/.
- Personal communication from Spear and Piersee.
- Personal communication from Lexie Woo, fourth and fifth grade teacher, Queens, New York, July 2016.
- Personal communication from Crischelle Navalta, high school teacher, Donna, Texas; Jillian Harkins, high school teacher, New Haven, Connecticut; Mary Kreuz, high school teacher, Toledo, Ohio; Megan Williams, eighth grade teacher, Washington, D.C.; and Amanda Zullo, high school teacher, Saranac Lake, New York, July 2016.
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Senior Director, K-12 Strategic Initiatives