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Alaska lags behind the nation in teaching time

  • Author: Dave Donley
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 5, 2018
  • Published September 5, 2018

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In slightly more than a year on the Anchorage school board, I have tried to figure out why our students are not testing better. Statewide public school K-12 National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, test scores for Alaskan children are some of the lowest in the nation. We have no separate measure for comparing Anchorage School District test scores to national scores; Anchorage students are mixed in with the statewide testing for this nationwide, federally mandated comparison. No matter what you might think of the efficacy of NAEP, it is all we have to compare state education systems. A consideration when interpreting these national rankings is that the actual academic gap between scoring low and the average may not be very much. Additionally, Alaska has now improved our level of academic rigor (how hard school is) to the 13th highest in the nation. However, Alaska's low test result rankings are absolutely a cause for concern.

There are certainly many reasons for these low scores, many of which may be unique to Alaska. But one of the potential reasons we can do something about is the amount of instructional time our K-12 students receive. A recent report to the Anchorage school board from ASD Deputy Superintendent Mark Stock exposed some rather shocking information about instructional time for our ASD students. By Alaska state law, public schools need to teach at least 170 days a year. (AS 14.03.030(1)) State law also requires at least 740 hours of instruction and study periods for pupils in kindergarten through third grade and at least 900 hours of instruction and study periods for pupils in grades four through 12. (AS 14.03.030(3)) For most grades, this means our school days cannot be fewer than 6.5 hours long, and actual instruction time is about 5 hours.

The Educational Research Service has reported that 175-180 is the national public school average number of student contact days (the number of days kids are in school) per year. The Anchorage School District's school year has only 172 student contact days. The ASD years ago adopted the 6.5-hour state minimum for our standard school day. 172 student days multiplied by a 6.5-hour student day (actual instruction time is somewhat less) equals 1,118 hours per year allocated for student instruction. This compares to a national average of around 1,300 hours per year. It is below even the nationally accepted lower levels of public school hours of instruction of 1,150 hours per year. Many other school districts around the nation provide students with 1,350 hours or more of per year instructional time.

Many factors go into consideration of how to count instructional hours. Other statistical sources, such as the National Center for Education Statistics and the Education Commission of the States, indicate Alaska student instructional time, while lower than most states, may not be so far behind other states.

However, if we accept the data from the ERS, what does this Alaska public school instructional time gap mean? Over the course of a school year, ASD students may be getting almost 200 hours or 30 school days less teaching time than the average K-12 student in the United States. Over a student's 13 school years, the difference between Alaska and the high end nationally adds up to about 3,016 instruction hours, which is 464 ASD school days (3,016 hours divided by 6.5 hours); a total of 2.7 school years (464 days divided by 172 student days) less instructional time. Even discounting this calculation by 50 percent would still result in Anchorage students losing the equivalent of more than a school year's worth of instruction during their K-12 years than students in most other states.

Increasing the ASD school day by a half-hour to 7 hours would increase the average ASD student's amount of total instructional time by about one school year. This would put ASD closer to the middle of the national range of average amount of instructional time. A little more than a third of public schools nationally report a school day of 7 hours or more. Obviously increased school hours will create additional costs to an already financial difficult situation.

The research I have done into reports and studies, regarding the impacts of less instructional time in public schools, is mixed as to the correlation between test scores and hours of instruction. Many of the reviewed studies give findings that are difficult to interpret. Many identify other variables that exist that may be more determinative of test results and student achievement. Although there is a general association between instructional time and test scores, there is evidence that there may be a ceiling effect of instructional time. Additionally, class size, general socioeconomic status, economic disadvantaged status, instructional style and peer composition of classrooms may mediate the effect of additional instructional time.

But the dramatically lesser amount of instructional time Anchorage and many other Alaskan public school students are getting versus the national average is clearly cause for concern and a very obvious possible contributing factor of why Alaskan kids are scoring low in national testing. The public can view Dr. Stock's full report on the ASD website. It is titled: "8_20_18 WS Elem Recess.pdf" and includes information about lunch and recess time in ASD schools.

Dave Donley served as a state senator and representative from Anchorage from 1987 to 2002 and currently serves on the Anchorage School Board. He and his wife have twins in fifth grade in the Anchorage School District. This opinion article is his perspective as a parent of children in the Anchorage School District and individual member of the Anchorage School Board and does not represent the position of the Anchorage School Board or the Anchorage School District.

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