Question of the Month: What standards do states set for the minimum amount of instructional time that schools must provide for students?

Stateline Midwest Vol. 20, No. 9: September 2011

According to data collected in April by the National Center on Time and Learning, every U.S. state except Minnesota sets a numeric standard for either minimum instructional days per year or total instructional hours per year. Some states establish minimums for both, as well as for how many instructional hours must be provided during each school day. (In Minnesota, the number of instructional days must at least equal the number for the 1996-97 school year.)

Kansas has the highest instructional-days standard in the nation: 186 for kindergarten through 11th grade. In contrast, Michigan currently has the lowest such standard in the country (165) — which was the focus of a 2009 report by The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit think tank. The study detailed “Michigan’s shrinking school year,” noting that the state once had a standard of 180. It was lowered in the middle of the last decade in order to provide local school officials with more financial flexibility — moving to four-day weeks with longer school days, for example.

In Michigan, students must receive at least 1,098 hours of instruction per year. However, the Center for Michigan says that this hourly requirement has not always been met because of snow days and other cancellations. Further, concerns have been raised about the impact of giving students longer summer vacations. Research shows that children — particularly young people from lower-income households — suffer academically from these breaks.

In 2012, Michigan’s instructional-days requirement will rise to 170. Other standards in the Midwest are as follows: Illinois, 176; Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin, 180; and North Dakota and Ohio, 182.

According to the National Center on Time and Learning, Nebraska and South Dakota are among the seven U.S. states without a minimum requirement for instructional days. However, those two states do compel schools to offer a certain number of instructional hours per year. For example, high school students must be provided with 1,080 hours of instruction in Nebraska and 962.5 in South Dakota.

A third type of requirement mandates the length of a school day. Indiana and North Dakota have the region’s most rigorous requirement: six hours of instruction per day for students in grades seven through 12. (Nationally, Texas requires the most, though its seven-hour standard includes time for recess and breaks.)

Instructional-time policies were a central part of talks in Illinois this year over education reform, due to concerns that students in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) spend fewer total minutes in the classroom than counterparts in other urban school systems. SB 7, passed by the legislature this year, makes changes in collective-bargaining law that will allow CPS to increase the length of the school day and/or year.

Groups such as the National Center on Time and Learning say expanding learning times for students in high-poverty areas can improve student performance and eliminate achievement gaps.