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Students' time on learning tasks in special education.

ABSTRACT: The purpose of this study was to measure, through naturalistic observation procedures, the use of time among handicapped students in four special education alternatives---regular class, resource room, special class, and special school. The sample included 230 elementary age students enrolled in 58 classes in 16 schools. ANOVA comparisons revealed that the least restrictive alternatives, particularly the resource room, made more in-class learning time available. Discussion includes recommendations for increasing learning time.

Over the past decade considerable attention has been centered on students' time devoted to learning as a predictor of academic gains (Good & Brophy, 1986). The amount of time students devote to learning is consistently reported to be a necessary prerequisite to effective increases in school achievement (Frederick & Walberg, 1980; Gettinger, 1984; Rosenshine, 1979). Time is such a critical learning variable that the National Committee on Excellence in Education (1983) included it as one of its five primary recommendations. "We recommend that significantly more time be devoted to learning. . . . This will require more effective use of the existing school day, a longer school day, or a lengthened school year" (p. 29). This recommendation was subsequently endorsed by the National Governors Association and included as an "action agenda" priority (Alexander, 1986).

The available research regarding students' time on learning tasks has primarily focused on regular education and normal students. Generally, the data indicate that students are allocated 50% to 60% of the school day to be on learning tasks and that students are on task approximately 40% of the school day (Denham & Lieberman, 1980; Mariottia & Boles, 1984). Research data on the use of learning time among handicapped students is limited compared with that available in regular education. In fact, no research was found that investigated learning time within special education program alternatives (i.e., regular classroom, resource room, special class, and special day school).

Comparisons of instructional time between regular education and special education, particularly the resource room, reveal considerable variability in the use of time. The research that has been conducted indicates that handicapped students receive more instructional time in the regular class and that the amount of allocated time was remarkably low in the resource room (Haynes & Jenkins, 1986). This discrepancy in instructional time is consistently reported to favor the regular class, often at a time ratio of 3:1 over the resource room (Allington & McGill-Frazen, in press). Sargent (1981) similarly reported that resource teachers' perceptions of the amount of instructional time was significantly less than the actual learning time.

Limited research has been conducted on the academic gains of handicapped students assigned to different program alternatives (e.g., Calhoun & Elliott, 1977; Leinhardt, 1980; Madden & Slavin, 1983). The results generally indicate that handicapped students assigned to the regular classroom significantly outperformed those students assigned to segregated alternatives, particularly the self-contained special class. Even with the handicapping condition and placement alternative controlled in the data analyses, the results may be partially attributable to differences in the severity of the handicaps. However, undetermined factors were reported to have contributed to the difference in outcomes. One of the undetermined factors is believed to be a difference in students' time on learning tasks. Even though resource teachers and special class teachers report no differences in perceived "teaching" time (Zabel, Peterson, & Smith, 1988), actual measured comparisons of time between the two alternatives, or even among the four alternatives, have not been conducted.

The limited research data regarding time utilization for learning in special education is a critical issue (Ysseldyke & Algozzine, 1982). The inability of many special education program alternatives to demonstrate sufficient student gains has mandated an investigation of time on task in special programs. The importance of students' time on task is potentially such a significant variable that it requires more systematic study (Hawley, Rosenholtz, Goodstein, & Hasselbring, 1984). In fact, Sindelar, Smith, Harriman, Hale, and Wilson, (1986) concluded that the time spent on learning tasks was the single best indicator of academic gains among handicapped students. Before implementing dramatic changes in the school time structure, such as increasing the school day or school year, evaluation of the use of time in the existing school day could prove to be a profitable endeavor. METHOD This research was a naturalistic, observational study (Good & Beckerman, 1978) of handicapped students' time on learning tasks. Direct observation of naturally occurring behaviors was expected to produce data regarding the extent to which learning time was used by handicapped students. Sample and Design The handicapped student sample consisted of 230 students enrolled in an elementary-level special education alternative. Each student was classified as mildly mentally retarded, moderately mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed (ED), or learning disabled (LD). Children with physical, health, or sensory handicaps were not included. As is typical for students with the handicapping conditions included in the sample (e.g., Greenwood, Delquadri, & Hall, 1984; MacMillan, Keogh, & Jones, 1986), males (n = 190) greatly outnumbered females (n = 40). The racial breakdown was 137 Black students and 93 White students, which was representative of the racial composition of the combined systems and schools.

The basic design consisted of comparing the following four educational alternatives on uses of different types of in-classroom and out-of-classroom time: regular classroom, resource room, special class, and special school. Major dependent variables were time in class, allocated time, and time on task. To increase the 'ns' receiving the different alternatives as well as the generalizability of findings, students were drawn from three school systems and two independent schools in the same geographical region. Altogether 58 classrooms in 16 elementary schools were involved. For each educational alternative, classrooms were observed in two different contexts (school systems and/or independent schools). The comparability of students receiving the same educational alternatives in different contexts was examined using a two-way (handicapping condition x system) chi-square analysis for each of the four programs.

In the case of regular classes and resource rooms, the distribution of handicapping conditions was found to be highly similar across contexts (both ps > .05). As shown in Table 1, handicapping conditions in the combined regular class sample were almost evenly divided between mildly retarded (46%) and LD 54%); whereas in the combined resource room the sample consisted of approximately two-thirds (69%) mildly retarded and one-third (3 1 %) LD.

For special classes and special school programs, however, there was substantial variation in handicapping conditions between contexts (both ps < .001). Special classes in one context consisted of nearly all ED students 95%), with the remainder moderately retarded (5%). In the other context the majority were 59% moderately retarded, with 34% ED and 7% LD. For special schools, moderate retardation accounted for 100% of the classifications in one system, whereas ED accounted for 75% and LD for 25% in the other. These results suggested using a six- rather than four-group design (as shown in Table 1) for overall analyses of time data. Table 1 also reveals an anticipated confounding of handicapping conditions with educational alternatives. (This relationship was highly significant regardless of which combination of special class and special school contexts was represented; all ps >.OO 1.) Obviously, because the educational alternatives are intentionally designed to offer differing levels of intervention, they would be expected to serve different types of students in naturalistic settings. Randomly assigning handicapped students to programs, aside from creating serious practical and ethical problems, would establish highly artificial conditions bearing little resemblance to realistic special education placements. However, the representation of certain handicaps in more than one alternative (e.g., mildly retarded students in both regular classes and resource rooms) allowed selected analyses to be performed in which handicap could be held constant or treated as an independent variable. Procedure The elementary schools selected were based on the availability of the alternatives, administrative approval, and enrollment that was representative of the geographic area. The represented schools were public and constituted a range from urban to rural, inner city to middle class, and 100% Black enrollment to 95% White enrollment.

The observation procedure focused on individual students in 5- to 15-minute time samples and were coded in 3-second intervals for the different time conditions. Individual student observations were concluded after 5 minutes of allocated learning time, or after 15 minutes of total time, whichever occurred first. The average individual observation time was 12.2 minutes for a total of 46.8 hours of observation for the 230 students. Each student was scored for the time that he or she was in the classroom (or assigned learning area) for the school day (excluding scheduled lunchtime); the time that they had allocated for learning (i.e., when provided with the opportunity to be engaged in a learning task); and time on task, or engaged learning time. A learning task was any activity designed to accomplish any cognitive, affective or psychomotor objective consistent with the appropriate curriculum guide or the Individual Education Plan (IEP).

Observable indicators for "attending" (Rinne, 1984) were used to determine and code students' on-task behavior. Engaged behaviors included, for example, following directions, asking or answering questions, eye contact with the curriculum materials, and writing from the chalkboard, text, or worksheet.

All handicapped students were randomly observed within each classroom when more than one handicapped student was present. Within each school and classroom, the time of the initial observation was randomly determined. For each classroom group, observation continued until all students had been observed. Within the classroom, the observer sat in an oblique position to the students, or in a position that was not in a direct visual line with the source of the instruction for the students. All of the data was collected by the senior author after establishing an interrater reliability of .92 with a trained observer. RESULTS This study addressed several questions concerning the amount of time that individual students were in the classroom within the school day, the amount of time allocated to learning tasks while in the classroom, and the amount of allocated time that was on task. Data combined for all special education alternatives revealed that students were actually in the classroom 78.5% of the time, or slightly more than 4 1/2 hours. While in the classroom, they were allocated 65.2% of the time to be on learning tasks. And, of the allocated hours, they were on task 64.4% of the time, or 33% of the school day. Overall Comparisons Between Placements The central question of this research concerned the use of time in the different special education alternative placements---the regular class, the resource room, the special class, and the special school. As previously mentioned, comparisons of the distribution of handicapping conditions for the same alternatives in different school contexts showed a high degree of consistency in the case of regular classes and resource rooms, but significant variation in special classes and special schools. As a further test of the similarity of the former contexts, they were compared on each time measure using a t test for independent samples. No significant differences were found, suggesting that it would be appropriate, for further analyses, to pool the data across school contexts for both the regular class and the resource room. Separate context groupings were maintained, however, for special classes and special schools.

Among the resultant six placement alternatives, significant differences were found for time in class, p < .001; allocated learning time, p < .001; and time on task, p < 001. Table 2 contains the percentages of time for each alternative and the ANOVA comparisons between groups. Pairwise comparisons of group means on each dependent variable were made using the Tukey HSD procedure with an alpha level of .05. Time in class was significantly higher for resource room and special school-2 than for special class-1 and special school-1. The highest allocated mean times were obtained in the regular class and the resource room, which were both significantly higher than the means for special school-1, special class-2, and special class-1. The latter, in turn, was significantly lower than each of the other alternatives. For time on task, the resource room, which had the highest mean, was superior to both special class-2 and special school-2.

As shown in Table 2, two scores were derived from the original measures. The first, "total opportunity," was the product of time in class multiplied by allocated time. Analysis of this measure showed that the three highest alternatives (resource room, special school-2, and regular class) were each superior to the remaining three. "Total time on task" was derived by multiplying time in class by allocated time by time on task. On this measure, the resource room was significantly higher than each of the other alternatives except special school-2. The latter and the regular class were both higher than the lowest alternative, special class-1.

The highest levels of allocated and on-task time thus tended to occur in the resource room alternative, whereas the lowest levels occurred in the special classes and special schools. Another way of looking at the data, however, is in regard to the handicapping conditions served. For example, the resource room and regular class placements were used exclusively with mildly retarded and LD students. In contrast, special class-2, which had the second lowest allocated time and the lowest on-task time, mainly served moderately retarded and ED students. These patterns suggested that more could be learned about the influences of educational and student variables through selected analyses that permitted each variable to be examined with the effects of the other controlled. Educational Placement Effects with Handicapping Condition Controlled The most appropriate situation for isolating placement and handicapping effects was in directly comparing the regular class to the resource room, both of which served reasonably large numbers (from 17 to 38) of mildly retarded and LD students (see Table 1). Accordingly, a 2(placement) x 2(handicap) ANOVA, using a regression solution to control for unequal 'ns', was performed on each dependent variable. Significant placement main effects were obtained on time in class, p < .05; time on task, p < .001; and total time on task, p < .001. As shown by the means on Table 2, the resource room was superior to the regular class in each case. Handicap effects were obtained on only one variable, time on task, p < .01: the LD group (M = 76.4) had lower mean times than the mildly mentally retarded group (M = 84.0). No significant two-way interactions were obtained.

In a second analysis, moderately retarded students in special class-2 (n = 27) were compared, using t tests, to similar students in special school-1 (n = 36). The only significant difference occurred on time on task, p < 001, which was higher in the special school (M = 65.2) than in the special class (M = 49.6).

A third analysis was a one-way ANOVA comparing ED students from special class-1 (n = 36), special class-2 (n = 16), and special school-2 (n = 12). A highly signifiant educational alternative effect was obtained on each dependent variable all ps < .001), except time on task p > .05. As can be seen in Table 2, the consistent pattern was for special school-2 to be highest, special class-2 to be in the middle, and special class- I to be lowest. Handicap Effects with Placement Controlled As reported in the above section, mildly mentally retarded students had higher time-on-task means than did LD students in both regular classes and resource rooms, p < .01. The only other reasonable handicap contrast that could be made was between moderately retarded (n = 27) and ED (n = 16) students in special class-2. Results indicated significant differences on time in class, p < .001; total opportunity, p < .001; time on task, p < .05; and total time on task, p < .00 1. On all measures, ED students had higher mean times than did the moderately mentally retarded students. Out-of-Classroom Time and Nonallocated Time The time spent in school, but out of the classroom, was devoted to the following activities: recess, restroom, assemblies, late/tardiness, drinking water, emergencies, errands, and other or unknown factors. Overall results, recorded for classes using a stopwatch, indicated that out-of-the classroom activities, averaged 80 minutes, or 2i.5% of the school day. Recess time and use of the restroom accounted for 64.8% (52 minutes) of the out-of-class time. Since classrooms comprise the unit of analysis, the separate educational alternatives had too few observations to make meaningful comparisons between them.

While in the classroom, time that was not allocated for learning was devoted to the following: procedures, waiting, transitions, free time, interruptions, eating/snack time, and a variety of minor reasons. Procedures were related to classroom and lesson organization, and included activities such as distributing worksheets, collecting students' materials, managing behavior, making announcements, and clarifying or making classroom rules. Waiting was a more subtle category of nonallocated learning time. Students were coded as not having allocated academic time when they had no task involvement and they were waiting, for example, for the next spelling word to be announced, or for a turn to complete a problem at the chalkboard, or for other students to finish a test. Transitions, which involved changing from one subject or setting to another (e.g., classroom to recess or math to reading), typically required time to prepare for the change, then time to get ready to learn again.

The remaining nonallocated academic time included free, nondirected time; interruptions, usually by other teachers, or students, or public address announcements; eating nonlunch meals such as snacks; and a variety of other factors. Although actual times were not recorded for these activities, when a student who was being observed engaged in out-of-classroom and nonallocated time, the type of activity involved was recorded. The resultant measure, therefore, was of the frequency with which the different activities were observed not the time devoted to them.

Overall, nonallocated time activities were observed for all but 20 students 9%). The highest percentage of involvement for the total sample was, as expected, for procedures 33%), and the remainder (in descending order) were waiting (20%), transitions (15%), free time (10%), interruptions 7%), and snack (5%). There was no interest in comparing activities between educational placements given the relatively imprecise categorical measure used and the large percentage of empty cells that would be present in the activity x placement mattix. Summary The general pattern of results regarding the usage of in-class time favored the resource room over the other alternatives. On allocated time and time on task, the resource alternative was significantly higher than special classes and special school-1 and directionally higher than all of the other alternatives. On total time on task, resource was significantly higher than all others, except special school-1 relative to which its advantage approached significance, p . 10. At the other extreme, the least favorable time results were associated with the two special class contexts. These same orderings were maintained in comparing the regular class to the resource room, and special schools to special classes, with type of handicap controlled.

In the regular class and resource room alternatives, higher time on task was realized with mildly mentally retarded children than with LD children. In special class-2, higher means on all time measures except allocated time were obtained with ED students than with moderately retarded students. Out-of-classroom time was mainly accounted for by recess and restroom breaks. Nonallocated time was most frequently used for procedures, followed in descending order by waiting, transitions, free time, interruptions, and snacks. DISCUSSION The data suggest that learning time may be increased in the existing school day. Even though students appear to be on task the majority of the time allocated for learning tasks, the frequency and duration of out-of-class and nonallocated learning activities constitute a large portion of the 6-hour school day. Nonlearning time, such as scheduled recess, going to the restroom, distributing materials, transitions between activities, classroom procedures, and extracurricular programs account for almost 3 hours of the school day.

The resource alternative, which consistently surpassed the other alternatives, appears to be organizationally designed to maximize learning time. Out-of-class activities, particularly recess and restroom use, were not scheduled in the resource setting. Similarly, several nonallocated learning time activities, such as rest/nap, eating/snack, and free time were not observed. These out-of-class and nonallocated learning time activities were typically scheduled within alternatives in which the students were enrolled for a majority of the school day, not the resource alternative. Individually, handicapped students' time on learning tasks was undoubtedly affected by the smaller group size and the milder handicapping conditions characteristically associated with the resource alternative. Consequently, resource teachers were more often able to engage in small group and one-to-one academic learning tasks.

The regular class time performance for handicapped students was not different than that reported in the literature for nonhandicapped students. Reported data indicate that regular elementary students spend approximately 4 hours in class, have allocated learning time of 3 hours, and are on task 2 hours (e.g., Denham & Lieberman, 1980). Comparatively, both handicapped and nonhandicapped students assigned to the regular class appear to use their learning time in the same proportions. The modeling effect of the regular class students on handicapped special students may have contributed to the more effective use of time.

The special class and, to some extent, the special school demonstrated significantly less in-class time, allocated learning time, and time on task. This relatively ineffective use of learning time in the segregated alternatives has serious implications for the educational appropriateness of restrictive settings. Clearly, the maintenance of segregated placements does very little to enhance quality educational time or "to foster the values inherent in the mainstreaming and integration movement of the past decade" (Stainback & Stainback , 1984, p. 109). Segregating handicapped students, their teachers, and the programs has the effect of insulating participants from the normal educational processes, including interaction, modeling, and monitoring. Thus, handicapped students are not only permitted to waste valuable time, but they do not have the advantage of witnessing normative behaviors that might provide some degree of compensation. In addition to their less efficient use of learning time, the special classes and special schools were also characterized by the presence of students with specific categorical handicaps. That is, all the students in the present sample who were certified as emotionally disturbed and moderately retarded were assigned to special classes and schools, whereas most students certified as learning disabled and mildly retarded were assigned to regular classes and resource. Categorical conditions appear to have been used as programmatic descriptors despite professional pleas to disregard categories as the basis for educational assignment (e.g., Reynolds, Wang, & Walberg, 1987). It thus appears that the combination of reduced learning time and the categorical handicaps served in the more segregated alternatives are the primary factors in the lack of students' educational progress.

The results of this research tend to support the conclusions of Calhoun and Elliott 1977) regarding the differences in performance between students in the mainstream and in the segregated alternatives. The results also support the general belief that handicapped students spend more time on learning tasks in the least restrictive alternatives (regular class and resource), compared with the segregated alternatives e.g., Greenwood, Delquadri, & Hall, 1984). However, these results do not support the conclusion of Zabel, Peterson, and Smith (1988) that resource and special class teachers spend similar amounts of time on instruction; nor do the results support the conclusion of Haynes and Jenkins (1986) that handicapped students are provided more allocated learning time in the regular class than in the resource alternative. In fact, controlling for handicap classification analyses in this study supported the opposite conclusion---that handicapped students in the resource alternatives were provided more allocated time and spent more time on task than handicapped students in the regular class.

In this study it was apparent that a major portion of the 6-hour school day was devoted to out-of-class, off-task, and nonallocated task activities. Should these results he supported through additional research it seems that the more effective use of time must be planned and implemented, particularly for the special class and the special school alternatives. The most direct approach, of course, would be to reduce the number of students placed in segregated settings. There is an evident need to base programmatic decisions on curriculum-based assessment, rather than categories; provide increased regular class involvement, rather than restrictive segregation; and change attitudes toward collaboration and integration, rather than isolation and segregation (Will, 1986).

Within all classes, regular and special, changes in the procedures must be considered, such as increasing the availability of materials, providing increased monitoring, developing systematic procedures for transitions, and evaluating the necessity for the extended use of the restroom, free time, and rest periods. Administratively, the use of assemblies and the frequency of external interruptions often seemed excessive and even useless and could be reduced. Given the current diversity of the student population within some classes, the need for assistance, both instructional and secretarial, by aids, volunteers, and, in some cases, peer tutors, can increase learning time. Reducing the number of students with acting-out and self-help problems contained within a single class setting could commensurately reduce the frequency and duration of teacher intervention. This listing constitutes only a limited number of potential factors that may contribute to increasing learning time in special education.

Any significant increase in the amount of learning time must begin at the individual building and class level with the support of teachers (regular and special), administrators, supervisors, and the community. Beyond the immediate class level, there must be a basic change in the philosophy of education of special students that is one of integration, rather than segregation. Then, as the present results suggest, increased learning time in the existing school day can be an attainable goal.
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Author:Rich, H. Lyndall; Ross, Steven M.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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