How Would Educators Change School Structure?

If you had the power to create a structure to maximize time in school what would it look like? Would you scrap the traditional nine-month calendar for a more balanced one? Would you lengthen the school day and the school year? Or, would you group students by ability, not by age? These were some of the ideas that circulated among hundreds of educators through the “VIVA (Voices, Ideas, Vision, Action) NEA Time in School Idea Exchange.”

NEA and VIVA engaged hundreds of educators from across the country to answer one question: “If you could redesign the school structure to best fit the needs of your students at this moment of rapid change, what would the school day, week, and year look like?” Ideas and comments were exchanged and then collected, analyzed, and organized by seven NEA members, four of which recently presented their findings and recommendations to NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.

“For me, the idea to get teacher voices from multiple perspectives and experiences to influence education policy is transformational,” says Van Roekel. “The length of year may be part of the answer, but what do we do from the first to the last day of a student’s experience? The ideas and decisions have to be generated by the expertise and thoughts of teachers in the classroom.”

And that’s what the exchange on time represents: empowering educators to lead the discussion on changes to the educational system and coming up with solutions that best meet the needs of students.

The recommendations from the exchange are based on supporting instructional strategies that grow student engagement and increase the effective use of school time; solutions to improve the structure of the school day and year; and realistic approaches to implement these changes.

Seven actionable ideas were presented to NEA, and include, for example, the school calendar, which is based on an outdated agrarian schedule. The report suggests changing the traditional school calendar of 180 days—which features a 12-week summer break, trailed by about 70 school days, with the first break at Thanksgiving—with a more balanced calendar that reduces the long summer break and spreads those days throughout the year. This would result in more frequent breaks, fewer long periods of in-session days, and shorter vacations. This calendar is based on 180 days, too, but with the time distributed evenly.

A balanced approach to the school calendar has been shown in other countries to lessen the learning loss that occurs over the long summer break. For educators, extending the school day would provide more time to teach core subject areas and allow students to master content.

Click on image to read the VIVA-NEA Report "Teacher Voices for Education Reform: Making the Most of Time in School"

Educators also recommend grouping students by ability instead of age. As one participant of the NEA VIVA exchange expressed, “If I could redesign the school structure I would change this one-size fits all approach. To say all students at a certain age or grade level should be in the same place is ludicrous. Classrooms should be more developmental…When students are grouped by developmental levels teachers can better plan to meet their needs.”

Another suggestion points to medical research that shows the sleep patterns of high school students and how it naturally shifts toward later sleep and wake-up times. Educators participating in the exchange agree and support restructuring the school day so that activities and learning time take place when it’s developmentally appropriate for elementary, middle, and high school students. This provides students with a school day that meets the needs of their growth and biological development, and increases their ability to concentrate and retain information. It also lends to a reduction in tardiness, inattentiveness and truancy during first period.

The NEA members who digested the information represent the suggestions and comments of nearly 350 educators who spent hundreds of hours exchanging ideas about how to make better use of school time. This type of interaction is part of NEA’s initiative to prepare the next generation of teacher leaders and create concrete solutions for our nation’s public school students.

Take Josh Agpalza, one of the members who briefed Van Roekel. He explained that the idea exchange empowered him to insert his voice, share his expertise, learn from his colleagues, rethink and improve upon his ideas, and return to his school with options to improve his school community. In the world of education policy, many decisions are often made by people who have never stepped foot in a classroom and who look for a silver-bullet solution. But as most educators know, there’s always more than one answer to a problem.

“We should give multiple options to districts so that they have the autonomy to make the best decision for [their students],” says Agpalza, a Cambridge World History and AVID teacher at Federal Way High School in Washington State.

Prior to his involvement with the exchange, Agpalza thought about becoming an administrator so he could use his classroom knowledge to influence education policy. However, four years ago he was given 17 students who he says were “no ordinary students.”

“Many of their parents were in jail or lived in city parks. Today, 16 of the 17 have been accepted to a four-year institution, with $10,000 worth in scholarship money—this is what empowers me,” referring to his strong desire to remain a classroom teacher. “And then this pops up, which has allowed me to make change through the VIVA NEA process.”

Presenting with Agpalza were Anissa Emery, a teacher and counselor at Oscoda High School in northeast Michigan; Andrea Legett, a dance teacher in Colorado; and Joseph A. Medeiros, a retired educators from Massachusetts with 24 years of experience.

Read the full report

  • Darrin Schuck

    Smaller class sizes – look up research on effective simultaneous human interactions. One person leading 25 – 40 is not possible.

  • zep

    Restructure “school” to adapt to the full needs of all students individually; by definition this would require the removal of all graduation requirements, all standardized testing mandates, and all grades. This acceptance of a wider perspective on educating our youth would allow students to focus on their interests and aptitudes rather than those demands which are despotically dropped on students from above. If we are intending on preparing students for life as an adult in a democracy, wouldn’t it then make sense to engage them in a democratic process of running the school they are attending, after all it is their education at stake.

  • Debra

    The calendar change is fine if you have air conditioning. What about the schools without ac? It is 90 degrees every fall in mid August when we start school. Having classes in June or July would be non productive.

  • Jerry Ross

    I have been discussing this very same topic of how to change our school system. I am glad to know I am not alone in my thoughts.

  • David Chapman

    None of this is new. These same ideas have been around for decades. They just keep getting recycled. Read “Off The Clock” by Fred Bramante and Rose Colby. Then look back at John Taylor Gatto’s writings. When does the education community move from endless talk toward real education reform? When do teachers take teaching back from the politicians?

  • A.R. Mitchell

    Finding “solutions that best meet the needs of students.” Meet the needs of the STUDENTS, not the parents, not the vacation industry, not the daycare industry, not the teachers or legislators.

  • Ross Reishus

    ON THE SCHOOL CALENDAR – Teachers are powerless against the economic forces of “big business.” Case in point. Minnesota tried to change current law so that schools could start the school year in mid-August. Despite all of the push to do this from parents and educators, it was shut down. By whom? The businesses that profit from the Minnesota State Fair. Guess when that’s on the calendar? The last two weeks of August -through Labor Day. So schools in MN never get to start before Labor Day. Solve THAT, and you’ll begin to truly reform the calendar.
    But in a perfect world……45 days on, 15 off. Retention is key. The pilot schools seem to be doing well with this.

    ON THE SCHOOL DAY – Doors open at 7:30. Breakfast / exercise required. Classes start at 8:30. Track students both in ability and in interest. Everyone’s happy, everyone wins. Except the rich, who’s taxes will need to go up to pay for it all. I’m okay with that.

  • D Voinov

    Class size reduction down to 1 to 25??? Class sizes should be reduced to 1 to 12 or less. It takes 1 severely emotionally disturbed student to affect the ENTIRE classroom environment (not to mention the other 3 to 7 or more students that need a drastic amount of attention). It is not fair to the teacher, the other students, and especially devastating to the one who needs the most help. This student should be in a class ratio of 1 to 3. Expensive? You bet. Would it work? Maybe. Is it a better situation for everyone involved? Yeah, I think so. Make education a priority.