10/20/2011 02:35 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2011

Disruptive Schooling

At a time when more and better education is crucial to economic strength and international competitiveness, the public schools have been reduced by over 300 thousand jobs in the last four years, declares a New York Times editorial (10/7/11). Class sizes are rising at the same time children in poverty are increasing, putting even more stress on over-burdened teachers. This is the worst time to take dollars away from schools. Yet of course, that's what's happening.

Many of us involved with schools wonder what the outcome of the current economic crisis will have -- long term -- on our nation's children who deserve better and who are the future of this country.

A conversation with a public school teacher in northern California two days ago made me realize one very easy, cost-free reform that could be instituted immediately. It would provide marked gains in the quality of instructional time.

Stop interrupting teachers in their classrooms during instructional time.

Sound silly? Unnecessary?

I asked the teacher if her instructional time was ever interrupted. Her exasperated response was, "All the time." I have asked teachers this question for years. Almost always I receive the same response.

Interruptions break the flow of a teacher's instruction. They break an explanation, a class discussion, a student presentation. The teacher must stop teaching, listen to the incoming request, respond, and then try to regain the lost momentum. In classes of younger children, it means getting them refocused.

We envy the academic achievement level in China, where I do research. There are many reasons for their achievement. But one is that instructional time is respected. The teachers teach -- uninterrupted. Not a second is lost. The teachers and their instructional time are respected.

I recently sat in on a first grade class in Los Angeles where the teachers are required to follow a scripted reading program. Even in those circumstances, with tight control over what teachers are allowed to teach and not teach, the interruptions were rampant. The teacher settled the energetic students and just as she focused them on the lesson, the classroom loudspeaker crackled an announcement from the school office about lunchtime arrangements. An hour into instruction, a resource teacher came to the door and asked if she could take a student for special testing and explained the reason why to the teacher.

Ten minutes later the phone rang. The teacher, busy with a student, asked a mature student to answer. The caller hung up and called back. The teacher answered. The caller requested that three students go to the office to discuss a disagreement on the playground that occurred before school. Twenty minutes later these students returned. Fifteen minutes later the phone rang, and the caller asked for a student to come to the phone. A long conversation ensued, and the teacher worked hard to keep students focused on the math lesson rather than on what the student was saying to the caller.

Next a teaching aide arrived to ask if she could test students, explained what she would be doing and asked which students she should start with. She then sat at one side of the class and called students to her one at a time. Finally, as the teacher ended a lesson and settled the children before dismissing them for lunch, the principal came onto the loud speaker to remind teachers of a staff meeting after school and what they should take to it and gave students, enrolled in a special program, long directions about what they needed to do with particular forms they had. The message was two minutes long.

When I taught elementary school I became so annoyed at constant interruptions that I kept a list of them for a week and gave it to the school principal. He was appalled at the number. The daily average was 12, the range 8 to 17.

The calls and interruptions are almost always from individuals doing their jobs within the school, thinking that the bit of information they have or need must be obtained immediately. But it is not as essential as classroom instruction; it could wait an hour or two or be arranged beforehand.

The interruptions show a fundamental disrespect for teachers and the children.