Education Commentary

The Gift of Time

By Suzanne Tingley — October 25, 2000 6 min read
We carve time into manageable segments that work for some children, but the child who doesn’t develop according to our timeline has a hard time of it.

It was graduation night at the community college, and the mood was celebratory. The speeches had been given, exhorting the graduates to take a risk and make a difference, and now, one by one, they came forward to receive their associate’s degrees. The first to receive their diplomas heard quietly respectful applause, but as the line moved along, the enthusiasm grew. Soon the warm spring night resonated with cheers.

Among those who walked across the stage last June were several young men and women who had graduated from the public school district where I work. Few of our high school graduates go directly on to four-year colleges. Those who do, not infrequently, return home before finishing. They may be academically ready, but the relative isolation of our rural district has not always prepared them for college life away from home. The community college, then, is a safe bet for many of our graduates, those who graduate with honors, and those who barely make it. It is this latter group that never fails to surprise me.

Just a few years ago, I shook their hands as they shuffled across the stage at high school graduation ceremonies. Some had just finished their final English projects the night before. Some worked 30 hours a week outside of school. Some already had children of their own. Some were able to graduate only because their teachers were merciful.

Their teachers complained that these students lacked commitment, motivation, direction, and even manners. Yet now, just a few years later, I watch them shake hands with the college president and graciously accept his congratulations.

Some of these young people had required an extra year to attain a high school diploma, a year that most likely had been added to their primary education experience (kindergarten through 3rd grade). They needed “the gift of time,” the euphemism elementary teachers sometimes use when they wish to retain a child in the same grade for yet another year. “He’s not ready for 2nd grade,” they’ll say. “We need to give him the gift of time.”

Public schools are all about time. Seat time, study time, time on task. Time to listen. Time to line up. Time to go home.We carve time into manageable segments that may work for some, but not all, of our children. The child who doesn’t develop according to our timeline often has a hard time of it.

There is a move afoot to increase the time students spend in high school so that they can pass the new tests required in some places for graduation. I do not think that students will see this additional time as a “gift,” especially if they have already received that present in elementary school.

It is hard for me to understand why a student who may not want to be in high school for four years would opt to stay for five. But supporters of such plans argue that the requirements for a high school diploma should be exactly the same for everybody, even if it takes some students a lot longer to graduate.

Until now, the students I watched cross the stage at the community college had escaped the full brunt of the new state testing requirements, being able to graduate before the exams were completely implemented. I am not sure how many of these students would have made it to college under the new regimen

Many high school students need a fifth year to graduate, but they do not view that year as a ‘gift of time.’

High school students never have been known for their patience, and each succeeding generation seems to have an increased need for immediate gratification. Education must be relevant and useful to capture their interest. Whether they will stay in high school for another year in order to pass a test that requires knowledge about the geological periods of the Earth or the European revolutions of 1848 remains to be seen.

Some people believe that allowing different standards for graduation will create a two-tiered system in which one tier is considered inferior to the other. I am not sure that staying in high school another year or more will eradicate that idea. We can agree (perhaps) that all graduates should be able to demonstrate basic competencies in reading, writing, math, and maybe technology. Beyond those disciplines, which is more valuable: knowing how to network computers or how to recognize a haiku? Being able to list the causes of World War I or to install a water softener? After the basic competencies, how do we decide what knowledge or facts are essential for the individual graduate? If all students had to demonstrate that they could wire a house before they graduated or that they could play the trumpet, perhaps entirely different groups of students would be staying for another year.

What is notable about the standards movement is that while we agree that the world is rapidly changing and that new and different demands will be placed on the workforce, we narrow, rather than broaden, the ways in which a student can demonstrate readiness to move out of high school. We can “raise the bar,” but not everyone is either interested or equipped to be a pole vaulter. Like parents who want their children to follow in their career footsteps, policymakers insist that today’s students study what they studied; after all, their very success in being the people who make policy attests to the fact that everyone should learn what they learned in high school. I am not the first to notice that despite tremendous changes over the past 30 years in business, medicine, agriculture, and science, the American high school curriculum, with the exception of the addition of technology, has remained essentially the same.

The current testing mania seems to be a simplistic response to a complex problem. Whatever the question, “more regulation” appears to be the answer. But students are less “regular” than they ever were, each bringing to the schoolhouse individual needs, backgrounds, aspirations, and, we must eventually admit, abilities and aptitudes.

If all students had to demonstrate they could wire a house before they graduated, a whole different group of students would need that fifth year.

Extending adolescence beyond the age of 18, so that students may pass state tests, may work for some. The refusal to develop different pathways for students with different needs and abilities, however, will mean that students who would have graduated may elect to leave school to begin their adult lives without completion of any program at all. (As a side note, adult educators in my area are already pointing to burgeoning enrollments in classes for General Educational Development diplomas.)

In the reception following last June’s college graduation, I asked a student I had known when she was in high school if she felt she had been prepared for college. She had been a student of modest achievement, on the remote fringes of popularity. With considerable pride, she told me that she had made the dean’s list for the last two semesters, reciting her grade point average out to three decimal points for my benefit. “College is so different from high school,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Here, you can just be who you are.”

As an educator, I suppose it is heresy for me to suggest that the real gift of time might be to let students go when they have accomplished what they need for the next step toward adulthood. High school may not be the best place for all students to spend three, four, five, or even more years trying to pass a test that can prohibit them from moving on to other possibilities in life. And surely someone has noticed that the millions of dollars that have been handed over to testing companies could have been used to improve the time students already spend in school by training teachers, lowering class sizes, improving parenting skills, diversifying the curriculum, repairing aging school buildings, investing in technology, providing classroom materials, funding research ...

Suzanne Tingley is a school superintendent in Sackets Harbor, N.Y., and a writer on educational issues.