Half-Time Schools and Half-Baked Students

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Amid all the education hoopla generated by national goals, the America 2000 plan, and proposals for national exams, one little-noticed piece of legislation was enacted this summer that may have far greater impact on actually raising academic achievement than all of the other reform efforts put together.

With little debate and no dissent, the Congress created in June a nine-member National Commission on Time and Learning. Its report, due in 1993,just may, as the 21st century approaches, nudge the country out of the 19th century and into at least the early part of the 20th.

In a nutshell, the impetus for the commission was the slow realization by public and policymakers alike that American schools still follow a half-time schedule that usually can produce only half-baked students--and this at a time when the changing nature of the world requires full-time study to develop fully educated citizens. Virtually all of our schools still operate on the agrarian calendar based on attending class in the winter and gathering crops in the summer. What is more, during the 36 weeks they are in school, American students spend far less time on academic pursuits than their peers in other countries.

An earlier federal commission--the National Commission on Excellence in Education--actually sounded the first alarm on this dilemma, calling in its landmark 1983 report, A Nation At Risk, for an examination of the amount of time U.S. students spend in school. It strongly suggested that a longer school day and a longer school year--along with more homework might reverse the "rising tide of mediocrity" against which it warned.

Unfortunately, in the years since that report, there has been a continuing stream of studies documenting the dismal performance of America's elementary- and secondary-school students. The latest is the National Assessment of Educational Progress report on the 1990 national and state-bystate results in mathematics.

I would wager that the NAEP math study is far from the last report of this genre. It is encouraging, however, that the Congress, following proposals by Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and more recently by President Bush, has finally acted in a serious way to examine what might be done to stem this tide.

Just how great is the discrepancy between America's school effort and that of other countries?

According to Thomas Juster and Frank Stafford, University of Michigan economists who have studied the matter, American high-school students spend in academic study almost precisely one-half the time spent by Japanese students. According to the two researchers, Japanese students are engaged 61 hours per week in school and in doing homework assignments, while American students spend an average of just 30 hours per week in such activities.

In Britain and many other nations of Western Europe, students in academic high schools commonly spend eight hours a day at school, 220 days per year. This adds up to about 63 percent more hours in class each year than the total for American students in similar schools, who typically go to class six hours a day for 180 days per year.

Research has shown consistently that the one constant in explaining how much students learn in virtually any situation is "time on task," defined as how much time a student spends actively attending to the learning task at hand. This factor seems to hold for teaching ist graders to read, army recruits to fire a rifle, quarterbacks to throw a football, or auto mechanics to tune an engine. No matter what skill or understanding is being taught, and no matter to whom, the one abiding factor crucial to the success of the process is time on task.

So it would seem there is little mystery about what might be "wrong" with America's education system, or what might be done to "fix" it. Our students simply do not spend enough time actively engaged in learning, whether in school or at 'home. If we think Americans can learn as much as others while putting forth half the effort, we are just not cognizant of one of the obvious lessons of education research. A student cannot learn if he or she is not actively engaged in the process. Learning does not occur by osmosis. It requires attention and time.

All of the current reform efforts, however genuinely motivated and sincere, from "choice" to vouchers to school-based management, are not likely to result in any meaningful improvement in student learning without an absolute increase in the time students spend in an active learning environment.

Some schools have responded to demands for increased graduation requirements by adding a class period each day to the school schedule, so that students can take an additional subject. Meanwhile, however, they have shortened the length of all the remaining periods to make room for the "additional" period. This is an obvious attempt to appear to be doing more, while actually engaging students in no more instructional time. In actuality, there may be slightly less instructional time available under the rejiggered schedule, since students need to spend time getting from one additional class to another during the day, which subtracts several hours of instructional time over the course of a year. At worst, such a "reform" borders on the category of sleight of hand; at best, it seems merely to be stirring the pot without adding anything to it.

The economists Juster and Stafford go on to report that American adults, both men and women, seem to put in just as many hours of labor each week at work and at home as their counterparts in other countries (with the possible exception of Hungary and the Soviet Union). The total is about 58 hours per week, which compares favorably with the workweek of Japanese adults. According to the researchers, the big mystery remains "why American parents work long hours at everything except making their children work harder." It would seem that if American students worked as long and hard as their parents do--58 hours per week instead of the current 30--their efforts might well lead to results that approximate the performance that Japanese students produce in 61 hours of schoolwork.

Arguments will continue to be made, of course, that students and teachers now "waste" too much time in school, and that greater efficiency within the current school day and calendar is in order, prior to increasing total time available. Such reductions in "wasted time" may, in fact, be marginally effective. But to perform at the level the Japanese do, we would have to be nearly 100 percent more efficient in schooling than they are. One is hard pressed to think of many important activities in which our productivity exceeds theirs by 100 percent--certainly not in automobile or television manufacturing, to name two that come readily to mind.

Parents, policymakers, and teachers ought to do one of two things: Either increase the amount of time students spend actively engaged in learning, in school and out, or quit complaining about how poorly American students perform when compared with their counterparts around the world. To berate America's schools while providing their students with less than one-half the learning time others have is neither fair nor wise.

The new National Commission on Time and Learning should move quickly to study the facts and document the situation. It must also deal forthrightly with the issues of cost and of reluctance to discard old practices. In time, it is hoped, the commission will write a compelling report that, like A Nation At Risk, will move the nation toward change.

America's students should not have one hand tied behind their backs as they prepare for full lives in a world full of competition. If they do, they and we will fail.

Daniel B. Taylor is deputy executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board. He formerly served as senior vice president of the College Board and state school superintendent of West Virginia. This article represents his own views and not necessarily those of the National Assessment Governing Board.

Vol. 11, Issue 02, Page 32

Published in Print: September 11, 1991, as Half-Time Schools and Half-Baked Students
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