The Hawaii Department of Education estimates that ramping up instructional time in public schools as required by a new law passed last year will cost $206 million over the next seven years.

But the Legislature hopes to avoid that cost and is now discussing its third instructional time proposal in as many years — this one to develop four common bell schedules for each school level (elementary, middle and high). All in pursuit of greater and more equal learning time for students across the state.

Is it worth it? The few existing national reports on instructional time suggest that focusing on quantity misses the point.

The National Center on Time and Learning, which devotes its resources almost exclusively to expanding instructional time and using it more effectively, cites four of the most significant publications on the subject. Three of them deal with how learning time is used, rather than how much of it is allocated. The fourth, which addresses quantity, dismisses it as an insignificant factor in achieving student outcomes.

“The body of research evidence suggests that before simply adding more of it, schools and districts should, instead, make better use of existing time,” states a WestEd report published 14 years ago. “Thus, as many studies point out, unless you can somehow ensure that any added school time would be devoted to instruction, with students engaged in well-designed and appropriate learning activities, providing more time per se cannot be expected to have a major effect on student achievement.”

More recently, the Education Resarch Association echos that conclusion in an article about learning time fundamentals.

“It is not just the amount of time spent that determines students’ degrees of learning, but also how engaged students are during that time and the extent to which they are engaged in tasks relevant to curriculum expectations and assessments,” the 2007 article states. “Researchers generally distinguish sharply between Allocated Time — the time on the school calendar for a given content area — and Academic Learning Time — the amount of time students are working on rigorous tasks at the appropriate level of difficulty for them.”

Senate Education Chairwoman Jill Tokuda, who sponsored the Senate bill for standardized bell schedules, acknowledges that quality is at least as important as quantity, and that even defining “instructional time” is a necessary step before determining how much of it students should have.

She said it is still a big problem, though, that students in Hawaii are receiving such disparate amounts of instructional time right now. Some high school and middle school students are receiving six hours fewer of instructional time than their peers, according to a report the Department of Education prepared on how far each school has to go in order to meet the new requirements.

“We’re just trying to bring some standards to the bell schedule at the different school levels,” Tokuda said. “Because you’re seeing such a huge range, it’s hard to get a base standard in place when you have literally hundreds of bell schedules.”

The law passed last year would be expensive to implement, and its possible replacement holds little promise of improving student achievement, says a student at Moanalua High School.

“I agree that increasing a mere hour will not result in better test scores, grades, etc,” wrote Tabatha Donley in an email to Civil Beat. “Quality over quantity. We should be focusing more on teacher quality and professional development, as opposed to enforcing a statewide bell schedule!”

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