What the Minutes Say About Public Education in Virginia

by James Wyatt Whitehead, V

School may be out for the summer, but the report card for the Commonwealth’s public schools is headed for the inbox. It is hoped that progress can be measured and built upon.

School boards face a siege of ailments not likely to be cured overnight. The challenges range from pandemic-era learning loss to chronic absenteeism, falling test scores, teacher retention, bus driver shortages, expanding achievement gaps, crumbling and aged schools, declining student conduct, and a concerned public that desires better outcomes from the billions of dollars spent on schools.

Politicians and education experts have spilled gallons of ink outlining reforms that will correct the failures of public education in Virginia and move our students in the promising direction of success and achievement. Yet none of the reforms have examined an immediate solution that is in plain sight and could be implemented for August 2023; time.

Since there are no caped crusaders who will save the day for the coming school year, school boards, superintendents, principals, teachers, and students are going to have to use the one thing that they do have. The Code of Virginia stipulates 180 instructional days or 990 hours of instructional time. Five-and-a-half hours or 59,400 minutes must occur each day and educators should waste none of this precious commodity. A typical high school class must have 140 hours or 8,400 minutes of instructional time to qualify for a standard credit for graduation. High school credits are measured by seat time thanks to the Carnegie Unit. But this measurement was conceived in 1906 and does not measure knowledge learned. Every school board in Virginia must ask the superintendent if that time was delivered to every teacher.

The year 1870 marks the birth of public education in Virginia and for the past 153 years a relentless competition for the scarce commodity of instructional time has been waged. As far back as 1894, U.S. Commissioner of Education William Harris lamented the decline of the national average of instructional days from 193.5 to 191. The oft-quoted 1983 report “A Nation At Risk,” by the National Committee on Excellence in Education, repeatedly criticizes how time is used in public education. Though written decades ago, it could pass for the latest current critique of modern education. In 1994, the National Education Commission on Time and Learning produced the report, “Prisoners of Time.” The authors declared “time is the warden of learning” and were critical of how instructional time is used in our public schools.

Reflecting on my own 27-year career in education, the steady march of lost instructional time accelerated as each year passed. When I began teaching in 1992, instructional time was something guarded by conscientious school leaders and teachers. When I retired in 2020, the demands of school leaders robbed me of countless precious minutes to use. The only remedy was to try and cram as much as I could in the time I had. There were days when I felt as if I was delivering a faced-paced disclaimer you might hear at the end of a television commercial.

Let us examine what happens to time each school day. I am going to use Briar Woods High School, the school I retired from and know best. By no means am I picking on BWHS, you can find much of this in any Virginia high school.

The first place you can find lost time is the school calender. Last year, there were 31 days of holidays and staff development. Loudoun has also built in extra time to create 10 snow days that can be missed without makeup. Here we find the potential of 41 instructional days. That is 15,498 minutes of time. Am I saying we should ban holidays and time for teachers to improve? No, but that is a source of potential instructional time and school boards should consider reclaiming some of it.

Let’s move on to the bell schedule that governs a school day. Briar Woods operates on an A/B block schedule. Classes 1-4 meet on Monday and classes 5-6 meet on Tuesday, alternating throughout the year. The warning bell sounds at 9:25 a.m., but count on a significant number of students arriving late no matter how far the school start time is pushed back. Hopefully, class starts promptly at 9:30 a.m. and 85 minutes of meaningful instruction are delivered.

The administrative details of attendance, collecting work, handing back papers, passing out materials, etc. must be done. At the end of the block, 5 minutes is allotted for morning announcements — 900 minutes each year are spent on that. The Pledge of Allegiance and the “minute of silence” are included here. Next up, a 10-minute “Brain Break” — that’s 1,800 minutes of instructional time surrendered for the sake of the brain. If it’s Wednesday, it’s time for Advisory Period. Here, 23 minutes are used for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and other student care initiatives. There were 37 advisory periods last year and it cost 851 minutes of instructional time. After first block is dismissed, there’s a six-minute transition between classes. Each day, 24 minutes are spent on transition; the annual bill is 4,320 minutes. Second block should deliver the best instruction time because there are minimal disruptions to this block. Lunch is next — another 30 minutes for an annual tally of 5,400 minutes. And then there are the remaining two blocks of the day.

There are other sources that subtract from instructional time as well. Fire drills, lockdown drills, tornado drills, athletics, and extracurricular activities. The “Prisoners of Time” report finds that a student can miss up to seven days of school per year due to early dismissal for athletics and activities. Let’s not forget pep rallies, school assemblies, field trips, and guest speakers. Upward of 900 minutes vanish here.

Then there’s testing. The PSAT, AP Exams, end of quarter tests, and SOL testing all take time from teachers’ and students’ potential to learn new material or master what is not learned. I once attempted to estimate the number of minutes lost in a grand total but gave up once I hit the 20,000-minute mark.

The classroom teacher must be very savvy with the use of the long and short hands of the clock. So much time has been taken away from them. You would be surprised how effective many teachers are in dealing with this seemingly no-win scenario. Time conscious teachers are easy to identify — their classrooms are dynamic places of advanced learning. And then there are those teachers who fiddle away precious minutes due to poor time management skills.

Additionally, we ask students to juggle the expectations of seven different teachers, seven different classroom climates, seven different courses, seven different degrees of difficulty and seven different levels of rigor. What is a high school student to do? Are they going to put more into Mr. Whitehead’s history class or into Algebra II that seems impossible to pass? Students have a finite amount of time to work with as well. How is it being spent? Are teachers competing against each other for a student’s time? You bet they are.

The sources of lost time cannot be fully placed on the shoulders of the principal. Students have to go to the bathroom, eat lunch, see the counselor, visit the nurse, participate in athletics, and be involved in activities. Some of the lost instructional time comes not from a principal, but a lawmaker in Richmond or a school board policy that must be followed. Policy makers are attempting to remedy a wide variety of ills that plague student learning. Are their outcomes worth the price of precious time lost?

Time is the only thing you cannot buy. School boards need to take a hard look at instructional time and how it is spent. Superintendents should be scrutinized on this issue. Principals should be grilled on how the time is used during the school day. Teachers should be required to demonstrate effective time management strategies. Students should be coached on how to survive the unrelenting demands placed on their time. The reform of how we use time in public education could produce immediate and measurable results as soon as one year from today. I urge every education leader to consider doing so.

During my study of the use of time in school, I did find a silver bullet — the One Subject Plan practiced for the last 73 years at Fork Union Military Academy in Fluvanna County, Virginia. I’ll have more on that in my next installment.

I conclude with an anonymous poem that captures the spirit of what I am after:

“What the Minutes Say”
We are but minutes—little things!
Each one furnished with sixty wings,
With which we fly on our unseen track,
And not a minute ever comes back.
We are but minutes; use us well,
For how we are used we must one day tell.
Who uses minutes, has hours to use;
Who loses minutes, whole years must lose.

James Wyatt Whitehead V is a retired Loudoun County history teacher.