Each week, Ann Vinson ticks off the items one-by-one on the voluminous remote learning checklist her school requires.
First, she schedules two class meetings for social interaction, where her 22 second graders read aloud and play games. Next, she plans small-group reading and math sessions. Then she sits on standby for regular office hours before teaching a full two hours synchronously—that is, streaming live to her students—over several sessions on Zoom.
In traditional classrooms, time is constant while learning is variable. In online classrooms time is variable, while the learning is constant.
It’s an exhausting schedule that she says is designed to hew closely to a normal school day, keeping students punishingly busy and parents content.
“Because of the increased Zoom requirements I don’t even have time to give feedback,” says Vinson, a teacher at a large private international school who asked to be identified by a variation of her name to protect her job security. “This is completely burning teachers out.” It’s tough for students too. Every day, she says, they can spend up to four hours doing homework and attending online classes if they sign up for optional Zoom sessions.
Like many teachers around the world, Vinson wonders whether all this time her kids spend glued to a screen is developmentally appropriate. And if not, how much time should students be spending on schoolwork, when the structures of a traditional six- or seven-hour school day have been so thoroughly obliterated?
In an effort to provide more definitive answers, districts, schools and a handful of states have begun issuing guidelines on shaping the school day into something both manageable and productive for students. But the time recommendations vary, and their origins are often hazy.
Adding to the cacophony are experts who say that focusing too much on time runs contrary to the fundamental nature of remote learning.
“In short, online learning is a delivery modality that supports mastery of content, regardless of how short or long a student has been in a seat,” explains Kerry Rice, a professor at Boise State University in Idaho who has studied effective distance learning at the K-12 level. “So you can think of it in this simplified way: In traditional classrooms, time is constant while learning is variable. In online classrooms time is variable, while the learning is constant.”
Still, some things are a given, Rice says. One is that instructional time should be developmentally appropriate. Attention spans are shorter for younger students than their older peers, who also need less parental involvement to complete assignments.
To that end, a handful of state boards of education have issued a patchwork of guidance in their digital learning plans, specifying the number of hours of schoolwork appropriate for each grade level.
Illinois, whose plan is widely cited by teachers on social media, advises schools to assign no more than 90 minutes of work per day to younger students, while high school students can spend up to 45 minutes per subject for a total of 4.5 hours. Kansas says it expects K-1 students to work only 45 minutes per day, though high schoolers can shoulder about three hours’ worth of work—a popular time cap in state plans.
For other states, the guidance doesn’t end there. Oklahoma and Oregon have released more granular plans that offer recommendations for each grade level and subject, including time for reading, math and supplemental learning, such as journaling or crafting.
Others are vague. Massachusetts simply calls for “meaningful and productive learning” that lasts roughly half the length of a regular school day. And many states have issued no guidance on the subject at all.
Source: State education department websites of Illinois
, New Mexico
, West Virginia
and New Hampshire Public Radio
Suffice to say, there is no firm consensus about how much work is appropriate—and likely won’t be any time soon. “No two states are the same,” says Robert Hull, CEO of the National Association of State Boards of Education. “Their governance structure is different, their policies are different, their laws are different and their levels of authority are different.”
Any kid, any grade level should not be spending more than 90 minutes on schoolwork for the whole day. That’s my number. I made that up and any other number you get, someone made it up.
That means some recommendations are not enforceable, either. In states like Illinois and Oklahoma, distance learning guidelines are a mere suggestion, not a mandate, and ultimate control rests at the school or district level.
Not so in Oregon, where a spokesperson for the state’s department of education describes its digital learning plan, complete with detailed daily schedules, as an “expectation” for districts. According to the plan, school days can last up to seven hours for high schoolers if they max out their time for digital learning (three hours), supplemental activities like reading and crafting (two hours), and nutrition and wellness breaks (two hours) that include meals, handwashing and physical activity.
According to Hull, a major complicating factor may be what’s known as the “digital divide,” or the reality that some students have access to more devices and faster internet connectivity than others, which can accelerate or hamper online learning. At some large districts, such as Los Angeles Unified, up to 25 percent of the student body does not log in to remote learning in a given week.
Thus, the guidance issued directly from districts has varied considerably. “I don’t think we’ve seen any consistent trend,” says Sean Gill, a research analyst at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, working on a database of publicly available district learning plans. For older students, “I’ve seen on the low end some districts have said two hours, and then I’ve seen others that have said four hours. That seems to be referring to actual screen time or formal assessment or assignment work.”
The variability doesn’t sit well with everyone—especially not with overwhelmed teachers like Ann Vinson and others who flood Facebook groups like Global Educator Collective with stories of working 10-hour days to satisfy time requirements they may find arbitrary. Some of them have shared their frustration with Alice Keeler, a well-known teacher consultant and co-author of “Ditch That Homework,” who has a simple message for them: It’s OK to do less.
“Any kid, any grade level should not be spending more than 90 minutes on schoolwork for the whole day,” says Keeler. “That’s my number. I made that up and any other number you get, someone made it up.”
For the most part, Keeler is correct: Even the creators of these distance learning plans admit that the time recommendations are little more than educated guesses. Most experts agree that the remote learning being done by schools today bears little similarity to traditional online learning, meaning existing research into that field isn’t quite relevant.
And then there’s the fact that usable research-backed guidance may not even exist, period.
“I’ve looked and looked expecting to find something on the developmentally appropriate amount of time students should spend on focused learning,” says Rice, the Boise State professor. “All I can say is it’s very complicated.”
So, if not from research, where did these plans come from? Most states convened working groups of teachers, students, curriculum experts and administrators, who created the time recommendations as part of the much-larger distance learning plans. They leaned on age-level experts and, interestingly enough, on what other states had already put out. That means states that issued guidance back in March—like Kansas with its three-hour cap for grades 6-12—have had outsized influence.
“When we were developing example schedules ... we knew there really wasn’t a precedent related to distance learning in the time of a global pandemic,” says Tiffany Neill, executive director of curriculum and instruction for the Oklahoma State Department of Education. “So we provided those as examples, and we’ve heard from districts that are using that time guidance and others who are using different time guidance.”
A Better Approach
Varied as they are, the benchmarks aim to discourage schools from trying to recreate long, traditional school days that would be unmanageable at home. But if “time is variable” in online environments, as Rice contends, these benchmarks may not be too useful, since online learning works best when students and teachers focus on content mastery over the number of hours spent on learning.
“We know from research that student time is going to vary and homework time is going to vary because, for instance, of student ability,” says Richard Ferdig, a professor of educational technology at Kent State University, who has studied K-12 online learning for more than 15 years. “It may vary based on how long it takes them if they understand something versus if they need extra support. If they’re studying for a test, a lot of kids might want to study more.”
It doesn’t make much sense to try and even out the amount of time students spend with each subject, says Ferdig. A better approach might be to divide the content and standards that must be covered into manageable chunks, understanding that the same content will take each student a different amount of time to work through.
Danielle Springston, a high school science teacher for a charter school network in Colorado, has shortened her typical 60-minute lessons to half that time, in keeping with various state and district guidelines that recommend no more than 30 minutes per day for each subject. Some of her students are taking college courses concurrently and adjusting to their new workloads; others have responsibilities outside of school, like one student who works an essential job to help his family.
“The shorter, more targeted lessons are crucial,” she says. “Otherwise that student is going to drop off with remote learning.”
Across the country in Bethesda, Md., Kerry Parker’s third graders aren’t spending more than an hour and change each day on their assignments. They see their teacher for a brief meeting each morning and then do some math and writing. Right now they’re in the middle of “Charlotte’s Web,” which Parker is reading to them, and writing comments to the class on their observations.
They could be doing more, Parker admits, but it’s a stressful time and she’d rather not inundate them with busy work. “I don’t want to give them a whole menu of stuff and then have them do a little bit here, a little bit there,” she says. “I really want the depth. I really want them to get it.”
Rachel Burstein contributed research.