The DeHavilland Blog

Friday, November 11, 2005

Analyzing our basic assumptions

The Education Commission on the States recently reissued "Prisoners of Time," a 1994 report from the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, a federal body which was legislated into existence in 1991. Why is it being rereleased? Because, despite the undeniable logic and clear solutions presented in this report, nothing has happened with its recommendations in the 11 years since its original publication.

The report, which can be downloaded from
this page, lays out a clear case that we are constrained in our ability to teach by the hard limits we put on time. We are being governed by the clock, and not by inputs or outcomes. A few facts pulled verbatim from the report:
  • With few exceptions, schools open and close their doors at fixed times in the morning and early afternoon - a school in one district might open at 7:30am and clse at 2:15pm; in another, the school day might run from 8:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon.
  • With few exceptions, the school year lasts nine months, beginning in late summer and ending in late sprint.
  • According to NCES, schools typically offer a six-period day, with about 5.6 hours of classroom time a day.
  • No matter how complex or simple the subject - literature, shop, physics, gym, or algebra - the schedule assigns each an impartial national average of 51 minutes per class period, no matter how well or poorly students comprehend the material.
  • The norm for required school attendance, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers, is 180 days. Eleven states permit school terms of 175 days or less; only one state requires more than 180.
  • Secondary school graduation requirements are universally based on seat time - "Carnegie Units," a standard of measurement representing one credit for completion of a one-year course meeting daily.
  • Staff salary increases are typically tied to time - to seniority and the number of hours of graduate work completed.
  • Despite the obsession with time, little attention is paid to how it is used: in 42 states examined by the Commission, only 41 percent of secondary school time must be spent on core academic subjects.
The report goes on to state:

Unyielding and relentless, the time available in a uniform six-hour day and
a 180-day year is the unacknowledged design flaw in American education. By
relying on time as the metric for school organization and curriuclum, we have
built a learning enterprise on a foundation of sand, on five premises educators
know to be false.

The first is the assumption that students arrive to school ready to
learn in the same way, on the same schedule, all in rhythm with each

The second is the notion that academic time can be used for nonacademic
purposes with no effect on learning.

Next is the pretense that because yesterday's calendar was good enough
for us, it should be good enough for our children - despite major changes in the
larger society.

Fourth is the myth that schools can be transformed without giving
teachers the time they need to retool themselves and reorganize their

Finally, we find a new fiction: it is reasonable to expect "world-class
academic performance" from our students within the time-bound system that is
already failing them.

These five assumptions are a recipe for a kind of slow-motion social

Much more information in the report; IMHO, an essential read, and an essential reminder to question our underlying assumptions of what we're trying to accomplish and how we can/should go about it.


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