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What Happens During the School Day?:Time Diaries from a National Sample of Elementary School Teachers

The education literature contains many studies of what happens in schools and classrooms, but no documentation of what actually happens to children during an entire school day in a nationally-representative sample of students in the US. This study presents data collected from a nationally-representative sample of teachers of first through fifth graders (N=553). Teachers completed a time diary, recording exact beginning and ending times for all the target student’s school activities for a randomly-selected day. We examined students’ total time in school and their activities while there. We found wide variation in the length of the school day based on the student and classroom characteristics. Students attending school for the longest day were significantly more likely to be White and have fewer special needs, and to have smaller classes with a larger percentage of White students and a smaller percentage of students of other races than students attending for less time daily. We grouped students’ activities at school into four categories that accounted for all but 9 minutes of the school day: academic, enrichment, recess, and maintenance activities. We found variations in how students spent their time based on student, family, and classroom characteristics. Teachers of African American students reported spending more time on academic subjects, and less time on enrichment and recess activities than teachers of white students. The same pattern emerged for teachers of more advantaged students, and classrooms with a larger percentage of White students. Results are discussed in terms of school reform efforts and inequality issues.

The education literature contains thousands of studies of what happens in classrooms, with varying amount of detail about classroom and teaching practices, yet we found no documentation of what actually happens to children during an entire school day in a nationally representative or large sample of students in the United States.  We lack the details on how students spend their time at school, particularly the time not devoted to learning core academic subjects.  This is surprising given the attention directed to time in recent school reform efforts. 


The present study adds important information to the question of how students spend their time in school.  It provides large-scale data on time allocation in American elementary schools based on actual time use diaries rather than stylized estimates made by teachers.  Exactly how do children spend their time in school? What type of activities do they engage in?  Does it vary depending on student, family, or classroom characteristics? 



We analyzed data from the Child Development Supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, an ongoing study of a nationally representative sample of U.S. individuals and their families, to learn more about American students' school day.  The sample for this paper consists of 553 elementary school students in first through fifth grades.  Unique to this study is the use of a teacher-completed time diary to capture the events of one school day.  The time diary gathers information on the flow of activities during a randomly-selected designated day.  Teachers began by reporting the time school began and the target child's first activity upon entering the classroom, listing the exact beginning and ending time and continued listing the activities, beginning and ending times, for all activities on the designated day until the end of the school day. 


Coders coded the activities listed by the teachers into one of six categories to more concisely capture the types of activities children engage in during the school day.  In this paper, we investigate students' time in four categories: academic, enrichment, recess, and maintenance activities.  The length of each activity was calculated in minutes from the exact begin and end time entered by the teacher.  To determine the total number of minutes spent in each type of activity, we summed the length of each activity coded in that category.  Data on the students' characteristics (race, gender, grade, special needs score, and standardized assessment score), family characteristics (family structure, poverty status, and educational level of the head of household), and classroom characteristics (class size, percentage of White students, percentage of African American students, percentage of other race students, and percentage in public school) were gathered from the teacher and/or primary caregiver questionnaires. 


The typical school day 

The typical school day lasted 6 hours and 35 minutes.  The largest percentage of the school day was devoted to academic subject activities (65%).  Maintenance activities made up the next largest piece of the school day (15%), followed by enrichment activities (12%), and recess (7%).  Not all students participated in each type of activity on the diary day, however.  All teachers reported at least some time on academic subjects, but approximately 21% of the teachers reported that their students did not have any time for recess during the diary day. Almost 15% of the students did not engage in any enrichment activities. 

Variations in the length of the school day

We looked more closely at the variation in the length of the school day by dividing students into three groups (6, 6½, and 7-hour school day groups).  Over the course of the school year, the differences between these groups were quite substantial, even when differences in the number of instructional days were taken into consideration.  Students in the 6-hour group experienced 14% less time in school than students in the 7-hour group.  Students attending school for the longest day were significantly more likely to be White, have fewer special needs, and have smaller classes with a larger percentage of White students, and a smaller percentage of students of other races, than students attending for less time daily. 

Variations in the Activities

Regardless of the amount of time in school, all students spent the largest portion of their day learning academic subjects.  Students with the longest school day spent significantly more time learning academic subjects than did students with the shortest school day.  The 29 minute daily difference amounts to almost 2½ hours per week and more than 87 hours per year.  With a longer school day, the teachers of students in this group also devoted more time to enrichment, recess, and maintenance activities, compared with students in the other two groups.

Variations by student characteristics  

African American students spent a larger percentage of their day and more actual time (17 minutes) on academic subjects and a larger percentage of the day and 10 minutes more time devoted to maintenance activities, than did White students.  This left less time for enrichment activities and recess.  White students spent a significantly larger percentage of their school day and 17 minutes more on enrichment activities, and over 10 minutes more time in recess, than did African American students.  Teachers reported that a larger percentage of African American students (33.2%) received no enrichment activities compared to White (9.5%) and other minority students (15.2%).  Similarly, 39.1% of African American students had no recess time during the diary day compared with 15.0% of White and 25.1% of other minority students. 

Variations by family characteristics

Students living in households where the head had less than a high school education spent almost 23 minutes more, and a larger percentage of their school day, on academic subject activities compared with students living in a household headed by a college graduate.  The time devoted to academics came at the expense of enrichment and break activities.  Students with a more educated parent spent almost 12 minutes more per day in enrichment activities than students with a less educated parent.  Students living above the poverty line received over 11 minutes more recess time than did students living at or below the poverty line.  A greater percentage of students from disadvantaged families did not have any time for recess during the diary day.  Eighty-two percent of the students living in two-parent families received some time for recess but only 72% of the students living in single-parent families did.  Similarly, 56% of those living at or below the poverty line had time allocated for recess, compared with 83% of those students from families living above the poverty line.

Variations by classroom characteristics 

As the number of students in the class increased, so did the percentage of the school day and the amount of time devoted to academics, while the time (percentage and minutes) devoted to enrichment and recess activities decreased.  We found the same pattern for the percentage of African American and other race students in the classroom.  The reverse pattern emerged for the percentage of White students:  As the percentage of White students increased, the allocation of time to academics decreased, while the allocation to enrichment and recess increased.  Students attending private school spent a smaller percentage of their day and fewer minutes (215.8 vs. 254.8 minutes) in academic activities than did students attending public schools.  This difference left more time for the teachers of students attending private school to allocate to enrichment (74.8 vs. 43.2 minutes), recess (34.0 vs. 25.7 minutes), and maintenance activities (64.2 vs. 56.2 minutes). 


A larger class size was significantly correlated with more teachers reporting no time devoted to enrichment activities.  The percentage of White students in the classroom was negatively related to the percentage of students with no recess.  Conversely, the percentage of African American in the classroom showed a positive relation to the percentage of students with no time for enrichment and recess activities. 


We found differences in students' participation in academics, as well as recess and enrichment activities based on the demographic characteristics of the students, their families, and their classrooms.  We use these findings to provide insight into issues of educational inequality in American schools, including the amount of schooling and the tension between the role of academics and other activities, such as enrichment classes and recess activities.  


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, presumably by allowing more time for the pursuit of academic topics.  The additional time available to students in school for longer days is not devoted entirely to increased time in academics for students in this nationally-representative dataset.  Instead, it is divvied up among different activities.  Of the additional 66 minutes per day in school for students with the longest school day, 29 of the minutes (44%) were allocated to academics.  The remaining time allowed an additional 12 minutes for enrichment activities (18% of the extra time), 7 minutes more for recess (11%), and 10 minutes extra for maintenance activities (15%).  For this national sample of students, a lengthened school day provided greater opportunity for a well-rounded school day-extra time in academics, enrichment, and recess.


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.  Children, particularly elementary school age children, need breaks in their day. 


Tougher standards, and the time on academics required to achieve them, might also explain the different amount of time devoted to enrichment activities for minority students.  Three times as many African American students than White students did not engage in enrichment activities during the school day.  The consequences, both developmentally and educationally, for a lack of exposure and engagement in the arts and physical education, may be substantial. 


Although more research is necessary to understand why minority students receive fewer enrichment and recess activities, the findings from this paper have implications for the debate on the equity of educational experiences.  Regardless of ones' stance in the debate among educators, parents, and policy makers about the purpose of schooling (academics-only vs. well-rounded), the differences in opportunities afforded students of different races are striking.  The content of the school day for African American students differed dramatically from that of White students.  A larger number of White students' experiences in school included exposure to enriching experiences, such as the creative arts and/or physical education, providing them with the opportunity to learn other skills and competencies needed for a productive and rewarding future. These "extras," however, did not come at the expense of academic learning time, raising questions about the efficiency of the time devoted to learning academic subjects for non-White students.    


Published Monday, Oct. 20, 2003