The case of the shrinking school day - it now adds up to only 22 hours a week

Back in September, it looked as if there'd be so much time, mused Susan Smith , a brand-new fourth-grade teacher. ''I have a whole year with these children,'' she thought. ''I'll be here with them six hours a day, five days a week, 40 weeks this year. That's a lot of instruction time.''

Were Ms. Smith a real teacher (actually she is a composite of several teachers at a school here in East Amherst, N.Y.), she would have realized today it doesn't quite work like that.

Back in September, like a mother watching a kindergartner get on the big yellow bus for the first time, Ms. Smith surveyed her kingdom-for-a-year.

The red letters W-E-L-C-O-M-E B-A-C-K were perfectly aligned over a large photo of the school. The learning center displayed pictures of animals, big black construction paper question marks, and pads of questions, puzzles, and games. The philodendron sat on the reading table; a manila name tag was taped on each desk; and ''Good Morning! My name is Ms. Smith'' is printed in big block letters on the chalkboard. In her plan book, neat boxes outline daily, weekly, and monthly lessons.

Ms. Smith didn't know then that her schedule wouldn't work. She thought that her 6-hour day would include: 60 minutes of reading, 45 minutes of math, 45 minutes of English, 30 minutes of social studies, and 30 minutes each of science , spelling, handwriting, health, and computers.

She found out she was wrong when she started receiving the pink, white, and yellow memos filled in by support staff and administrators:

Please excuse (name) from class on (day/days) at (time) to take part in (activity). She makes a list of times when whole-class activity will not be possible. For Monday, her list looks like this:

8:30-8:45 - Pledge, lunch money, attendance, excuses, homework.

8:45-9:00 - Dana to speech.

9:00-9:30 - Rob, Sam, Jane, Deb to remedial reading.

9:15-9:35 - Lois to trumpet lesson.

10:00-10:55 - Whole class to phys. ed.

11:30-12:00 - Whole class to lunch.

12:15-1:00 - Bob, Polly, Lynn to gifted enrichment.

1:00-1:30 - Greg, Linda to clarinet lesson.

1:15-on - Sean, Jean, Sally leave the school for religious instruction.

Other days are similar.

All children are out of the classroom for ''specials'' five times a week for 45 minutes each: physical education twice and music, art, and library once.

Selected children are out for remedial reading five times a week, some for resource-room help five times a week, some for the gifted program twice, and others for speech twice.

On other days, certain children are excused for stringed-instrument lessons, band and orchestra rehearsals, remedial writing, remedial math, and chorus practice. In addition, there are assembly programs, physical exams, fire drills, standardized testing, and bookmobile visits.

Ms. Smith is correct in thinking that she is there six hours a day. So are the philodendron, the learning center, and the plan book.

But the students are busy with other things.

Editor's note: The Monitor is following up on recommendations of the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) by examining some of the areas in which improvement is needed in US public schools and the ways in which these needs are being addressed.

On the use of time in American schools, the NCEE report cites three ''disturbing facts'': ''(1) compared to other nations, American students spend much less time on school work; (2) time spent in the classroom and on homework is often used ineffectively; and (3) schools are not doing enough to help students develop either the study skills required to use time well or the willingness to spend more time on school work.'' The report also notes, ''A study of the school week in the United States found that some schools provided students only 17 hours of academic instruction during the week, and the average school provided about 22.''

The commission recommended that ''significantly more time be devoted to learning the New Basics. This will require more effective use of the existing school day, a longer school day, or a lengthened school year.''m

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