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What Happens During the School Day? New Study Illustrates Racial and Economic Inequality in American Schools


Jodie Roth

Jodie Roth

Researchers from the National Center for Children and Families at TC and the University of Maryland have found significant variations in how students spend their time in school. The study points to several educational advantages for white students and those students without special needs. For instance, teachers of African American students reported spending a larger percentage of the school day on academic subjects, and less time on enrichment and recess activities than teachers of white students.

Meanwhile, white students, and students with fewer special needs do not spend less time on academics, rather, they tend to have longer school days that include the extra enrichment and recess. They also enjoy smaller class sizes.

This ground-breaking study, which clearly documents differences in the duration and patterns of school days for students of different backgrounds, sheds light on what some observers see as a growing inequality in educational opportunities. Furthermore, its release coincides with new federal education law that mandates more testing of students and sanctions for schools with low test scores. This policy could well lead schools serving low-income and African American or Latino students to devote an even larger percentage of their time to academic test prep and less time to enrichment activities.

The study is accessible through The Teachers College Record is a journal of research, analysis, and commentary in the field of education. It has been published continuously since 1900 by Teachers College, Columbia University.

The question-"What did you do in school today?"-asked countless times in the car, at the dinner table, and over the phone by parents of school-age children prompts a multitude of answers, ranging from "nothing" to a detailed description of what was served for lunch or a cool science experiment. Just as school-age children rarely provide parents with a minute-by-minute recounting of their day, researchers seldom gather such information about school from teachers or students.

In an article titled "What Happens During the School Day?," Teachers College Professor Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of the National Center for Children and Families, research associates Jodie L. Roth, Miriam R Linver, and Professor Sandra L. Hofferth of the Department of Family Studies at the University of Maryland present data collected from a nationally-representative sample of teachers of first through fifth graders U.S. (N=553) in a nationally-representative sample of students in the U.S.

In the study teachers completed a time diary, recording exact beginning and ending times for all the target student's school activities for a randomly-selected day. The researchers also examined students' total time in school and their activities while there and grouped students' activities at school into four categories that accounted for all but nine minutes of the school day: academic, enrichment, recess, and maintenance activities. "There is good news and bad news in our findings. On the positive side, teachers of minority students devote more time to learning academic subjects than teachers of white students. This extra time on academics, however, comes at a cost-less time for recess and enrichment activities, important parts of learning and preparation for the future," said Jodie Roth.

According to the researchers, proposals for lengthening the school day or the school year to provide more time for learning stem largely from the untested but popular belief that more time would lead to higher achievement. Although academic pursuits account for the bulk of children's time in school, 35 percent of the school day is devoted to other activities. This may seem like a large portion of the day-2 hours and 10 minutes-particularly given the emphasis on strengthening American students' academic performance.

Some argue that this time is "wasted." The "extras," such as health, music, and art, and routine necessities, such as lunch, bathroom breaks, or recess, take too much time away from the true business of schools-training in academic skills.

Others believe that schools do not have enough time to teach our students all they need to know to be successful in the 21st Century; enrichment and extra activities are an essential part of the school day, according to this point of view.

The authors clearly state, however, that "Our data illustrate the racial and economic inequality in America's schools: Poorer minority children do not have the same opportunities as richer white students. Although minority students had more time allocated to academic subjects, they had less exposure to recess and enrichment activities. One-third of the African-American students had no recess, more than twice as many African American students than white students. From our data, we do not know why so many children in these classes forgo recess. It could be that in classes and schools with more minority children, the recent focus on higher standards has forced out time for recess."

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