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Education Commentary

Breaking Out of the ‘Prison of Time’

By S. Paul Reville — May 05, 1999 4 min read

The National Commission on Time and Learning, convened by Congress in 1991 to examine the quantity, quality, and scheduling of student learning time, reported in 1994 that “our time-bound mentality has fooled us all into believing that schools can educate all of the people all of the time in a school year of 180 six-hour days. ... Providing equal time for students who need more time guarantees unequal results.” Indeed, the adage “time is of the essence” has never been more appropriate than when applied to a student’s acquisition of skills and knowledge. Many school systems have been unable to effectively improve student performance in part because their class scheduling and curriculum design ignore the common-sense premise that students learn at different rates.

We all know someone who could learn to play a reasonably competent game of chess after a short period of instruction and practice, while we know others who would need much more instruction and diligent practice to achieve a comparably competent game. Similarly, some people have a knack for learning languages, while others study for years without being fluent. School reformers must incorporate this learning principle--that learning rates and times vary--if we hope to make substantial improvements in the academic performance of American students. Until the utilization of educational time is fully flexible to meet each student’s learning needs, our schools will be unable to deliver on the fundamental education reform promise that all students will have an opportunity to achieve a high standard of learning.

Several years ago, I chaired the Massachusetts Commission on Time and Learning, which was charged with guiding the commonwealth in redesigning the structure of classroom time. Taking our cue from the national commission, which called for a “new paradigm” in the nation’s approach to educational time, our commission urged the development of an educational system that ensured each student the amount of instructional time that he or she required in order to master a certain standard of performance. School time in such a system would not necessarily be the same for everyone, as in our current system, but rather would be “customer-" or need-driven. Students would get as much time as they needed in order to achieve mastery. The goal would be to ensure that each and every student leaves school capable of the educational equivalent of that reasonably competent game of chess.

Although our commission’s work stimulated some fairly significant changes in the use of time in Massachusetts schools--for example, the widespread adoption of block scheduling, which provides longer class periods in high schools--we were unable to achieve the fundamental redesign of the schedule and calendar that will be necessary to open the doors to success for all students. Resistance was too strong, not just from the system, and the adults in it (many of whom were averse to altering long-observed practices of school scheduling and calendars), but also from the public. Parents and many business leaders were reluctant to upset patterns such as vacations or student-employment practices that had become habitual. The pressure to stick with the status quo is enormous and has resulted in nearly uniform and highly ineffective school time practices across virtually all school jurisdictions in the United States. Our commission’s failure to prompt the “paradigm shift” in Massachusetts and elsewhere mirrors the failure of similar efforts around the country, and demonstrates just how hard it is to achieve dramatic changes within a system that has amassed decades of inertia.

Systemic reform that produces high achievement is a complex, long-term undertaking.

Nonetheless, change is possible, as some public and charter schools have proved in recent years. A few schools in Massachusetts and elsewhere have broken out of the “prison of time” by employing several key strategies: engaging parents, faculty, and students in designing and piloting change; providing additional support for professional development to help teachers reshape teaching to fit new models of time and learning; engaging in thorough evaluations of time-change efforts; and investing the resources necessary to extend school time.

In many of these cases, technology enabled heterogeneous groups of students to work simultaneously on individually tailored learning programs. In addition, school leaders cultivated a climate that encourages experimentation with new forms of teaching, such as team-teaching combinations, and new approaches to student grouping, in order to take full advantage of new time arrangements.

The complexity of the changes required in restructuring school time is indicative of the challenge of the broad, systemic reform that is needed to substantially improve school performance. Systemic reform that produces high achievement is a complex, long-term undertaking. This complexity is far removed from the rhetoric of quick-fix, silver-bullet solutions that so many administrators and politicians put forth. As student testing in so many of our states reveals continuing learning deficits, our political leaders and school administrators must respond to the public’s sense of urgency about education, but should do so in a way that acknowledges the long-term, systemic effort that will be required to mount the scope and scale of reform that will truly transform our schools to better serve all of our children.

S. Paul Reville is the co-director of the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform and a lecturer at the Harvard University graduate school of education in Cambridge, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 1999 edition of Education Week as Breaking Out of the ‘Prison of Time’


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