California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II

The Importance of Time in Middle Grades

Time is a critical element in driving academic excellence. Students who enter the middle grades without grade-level skills face serious challenges as academic rigor intensifies. Many children who have struggled during elementary school may need longer school days and school years, intensive academic interventions, and extra time for services such as tutoring. Students who do not experience grade-level skills challenges may need time built into their schedules for additional academic acceleration and enrichment. 

Given the number of rigorous standards in the middle grades and the reality of teaching the adolescent learner, there is simply not enough time in current instructional models for interventions, when necessary, and for meeting all students’ academic, physical, emotional, and social needs. As a result, flexible schedules and creative solutions at each school site are necessary to meet the needs of students. Current funding levels and collective bargaining agreements generally preclude the option of longer days. In fact, collective bargaining agreements dictate much of how time is used in schools, making collaboration and collegial thinking much more important.

Time in middle schools is also affected by adolescent development. Young adolescents are subject to hormones that influence mood and excitability. At times students exhibit critical thought and are reflective, analytical, and introspective. At other times, adolescents are erratic and inconsistent in their behavior. Social and emotional concerns are a huge priority. They can override academic learning that should be taking place. Master calendars that have support classes built into the daily schedule can give students the repetition and the focus they need. Elective classes in daily schedules expose adolescents to new stimuli in social settings.

To maximize limited instructional time during the day, the school culture must reinforce that students are in their seats ready to work from bell to bell. Teachers can learn to use the beginning minutes of each class for students to copy agendas, write in journals, or solve a problem. Ending minutes can be used to reinforce homework.

In Tracking an Emerging Movement: A Report on Expanded-Time Schools in America (2009) (Outside Source), the National Center on Time & Learning found a statistically significant (moderate) association between the number of instructional minutes per day and student performance for grades seven and ten in both mathematics and English- language arts. The report’s authors found, among other things, that middle grades students in expanded time schools spend on average 1,500 minutes per week in core academic classes—the equivalent to five hours per day spread evenly across the four core subjects. The report includes an appendix that alphabetically lists the schools represented in the study.

According to the Schools to Watch™-Taking Center Stage (STW-TCS) program, effective middle grades programs center on communities where all stakeholders are learning all the time (students, teachers, parents, administrators, and community partners). This focus on learning is one of the reasons that professional learning communities are also central to the middle grades philosophy. Professional learning communities and the innovative ways they use scheduling is what allows help to be provided in order for all students to succeed. Among other things, flexible scheduling allows time for:

  • Students to gain mastery (reteaching, tutoring, and interventions)
  • Teachers to plan instruction and common assessments and to analyze the results (link to the section on "Lead data analysis" in Recommendation 9—Leadership)
  • Intervention classes  and other applicable classes
  • Electives for all students
  • Clubs, celebrations, and co-curricular activities
  • Advisory classes that increase student-adult relationships

Finding a solution to the problem of more time in school often conflicts with:

  • Long-held traditions based on the agrarian and nineteenth-century calendar (summers and afternoons off for chores at home)
  • Lack of funding to hire more teachers for longer periods of time
  • Collective bargaining contracts (that stipulate the length of a school day, require prescribed class periods, and use of preparation periods)

A Massachusetts research study on extended time arrived at the following conclusions about time in the middle grades:

  • Regardless of the specific scheduling approach, the additional hours generally translate into greater academic support for all students and a greater variety of enrichment activities.1
  • At the successful Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Academies (a network of 45 charter middle schools throughout the country), students spend approximately 60 percent more time in school than do students at conventional middle schools.2

In the typical middle school, students have different teachers for each subject, and the class period lasts about 50 minutes. Many teachers and administrators in the study’s extended-time schools believe 50-minute class periods are too short to cover the required material, answer all student questions, and ensure that students fully grasp the concepts presented. They therefore lengthen their classes to 90 or even 120 minutes.3

Giving academic or intervention programs time to take effect is another important aspect in middle grades reform.

Simply put, for programs to achieve positive outcomes for students, they must be chosen thoughtfully—keeping in mind local needs and contexts—and implemented willingly and faithfully. They must also be given time to succeed [emphasis added]. The research evidence on program effectiveness indicates that achieving positive results, particularly at the level of schools and districts, often takes years. Some evidence indicates that the longer a program is in place, the more effective it is likely to become.4

To incorporate the essential elements of standards-based middle grades reform, high-impact middle schools create flexible schedules that make time for team teaching, differentiated instruction, remedial support programs, accelerated learning opportunities, active and cooperative learning experiences, advisory or similar types of guidance programs, tutorials, extended-year learning opportunities, intersessions, and summer school programs.5

Recommendation 3 — Time

Time for All Courses

1David Farbman and Claire Kaplan, Time for a Change: The Promise of Extended-Time Schools for Promoting Student Achievement, (PDF; Outside Source). Boston: Massachusetts 2020, 2005, 10.
2Ibid., 7.
4Works in Progress: A Report on Middle and High School Improvement Programs (PDF; Outside Source), Washington, D.C.: The Comprehensive School Reform Quality Center, American Institute for Research, January 2005, 91.
5Taking Center Stage. Sacramento: California Department of Education, 2001, 150.

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