Commission Thinks 'Time Is Right' To Study Time and Learning

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ALBUQUERQUE,. N.M.--Tears well up in the eyes of Marilyn Davenport, the principal of Governor Bent Elementary School here, as she reads a series of poems to visitors.

With titles like "Divorce,'' "Daddy Went Bye-Bye,'' "My Mom's Boyfriend,'' and "Four Years Ago It Happened,'' the poems by the 10- and 11-year-olds are filled with pain, honesty, and catharsis.

"You talk about rearranging the schedule,'' Ms. Davenport says, "but I don't care when I have the children as long as wonderful things are happening.''

Ms. Davenport's visitors are members of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, a federally chartered panel assigned the task of examining the use of time in schools.

While for Ms. Davenport the paramount concern lies in what goes on during regular school hours, many educators testifying before the commission during its two-day stay here indicated support for longer school days and school years, as well as for a more creative use of time in schools.

As it analyzes how the use of time affects schooling and development, and whether more time--or more efficient use of it--is needed to improve student performance, the commission is conducting a series of site visits and hearings across the country.

Each is devoted to a particular theme, such as how time affects curriculum, professional development, or learning and student motivation--the subject at hand here.

'Lasting Impact' Seen

Created in 1991, the panel has nine members, three each appointed by former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, the House leadership, and the Senate leadership.

With a current budget of $975,000, the panel is slated to present a report on its findings to Congress next year.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the sponsor of the legislation that created the commission, said its study of time issues is as important as the efforts to set national education goals and create curricular and performance standards.

"The kind of changes that we're talking about here are systemic changes that are going to occur over a period of years,'' Mr. Bingaman said. "If we're serious about it, we've got to address the issue of time.''

A similar view was offered by John Hodge Jones, the chairman of the commission and the superintendent of the Murfreesboro, Tenn., school district, which has pioneered the use of extended-day schools.

"If we can do a good job with our work,'' Mr. Jones said, "we can have a lasting impact on education into the next century.''

It's About Time

Under its Congressional charter, the commission's job is to analyze and make recommendations on:

  • The length of the academic year and day in the United States and elsewhere;
  • The time in school that students devote to mathematics, history, English, science, and geography;
  • The use of incentives for students to improve their academic performance in available learning time;
  • How children use their time outside of school, including doing homework, and whether those hours can be considered learning time;
  • How teachers can use available time for professional development;
  • How schools are used for extended learning or social services; and
  • The funding and state or federal legislation needed to implement its proposals.

"I'm convinced the timing is right for this,'' said Milton Goldberg, the time panel's executive director. "A lot of issues have been addressed by the education-reform movement, but none will have been addressed like this one.''

Mr. Goldberg should know. He was the executive director of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which produced the landmark 1983 report, A Nation at Risk.

Formidable Obstacles

Although A Nation at Risk has had a profound impact on education over the past decade, its call for a seven-hour school day and an academic year of up to 220 days met with little response from states or districts.

Efforts to lengthen the school day or year ran into formidable political and fiscal obstacles, which may also bedevil the coming recommendations of the time panel.

But Mr. Goldberg said he expects the new panel's report on time to be broader than the time recommendations contained in A Nation At Risk.

"If you radicalize what you think about time, it makes you think about everything,'' Mr. Goldberg said.

Moreover, by holding hearings across the nation and issuing a report solely on how time is used, he said, the panel hopes its report will reach a wide audience.

Mr. Bingaman also intends to insure that Congress hears what the commissioners have to say.

He indicated that the commission's report could serve as the basis for federal legislation, and suggested that the report arrive on Congressional desks as members debate reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act over the next two years.

"There are ways the federal government can facilitate and provide incentives for schools to expand their hours of instruction,'' Mr. Bingaman said.

Creative Use of School Time

In Albuquerque, commission members saw a range of activities developed out of the creative use of time and a creative definition of the function of school.

Commission members visited Emerson Elementary School, one of 26 schools here that operate on a year-round basis.

Principal Anna Marie Ullibari led commission members on a short tour of the school. The early-childhood-literacy program, she explained, provides an extra hour of instruction each day for kindergarten and 1st-grade students who have been identified by their teachers as needing extra help with reading, writing, or other skills.

Six such team-taught sessions are conducted each day, with as many as 76 children participating, she said.

In addition, a child-development center on school grounds provides day care and a learning environment for 3- to 5-year-olds. Administered and staffed by the city, the center's space and food is paid for by the Albuquerque school district.

Emerson also offers students a place to go when they are out of school--typically 15 days for every 60 days on campus. During these "intersessions,'' student teachers provide 2 1/2 hours of low-pressure instruction in a relaxed atmosphere for 10 of the 15 days.

Ms. Ullibari said the year-round schedule, the special programs, and an effort to involve parents more in school operations contribute both to better learning for students and to helping the school survive an overcrowding problem.

"For our children, what it offers are some additional opportunities in learning,'' Ms. Ullibari said. "After three weeks, students come back, and it's as if they've never gone.''

At Governor Bent Elementary, commission members find that Ms. Davenport has taken a different approach. Forgoing such special interventions as after-school clubs, she has sought to make better use of the typical school day by implementing learning techniques involving the concept of "multiple intelligences.''

While members were impressed by Ms. Davenport's students, they were unsure whether an approach that works with children from the school's relatively affluent attendance area could be applied to schools that must contend with a host of pressing social problems.

"I have no problem with her philosophy, but she's looking at her isolated situation,'' said Mr. Jones, noting that Governor Bent serves far fewer poor families than does Emerson. "Schools are public entities and paid for by the public. They need to integrate more with public needs.''

'Bitter Disagreement'

At its hearing, the commission also heard from other local educators and administrators, including a school official who said the year-round effort has "probably caused the most bitter disagreement'' in the community in regard to the schools.

Other witnesses, including university researchers who specialize in student motivation and learning, urged that the creation of more time in schools be used for ongoing teacher training and student learning.

Vol. 12, Issue 18

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