Ten years ago this spring, a federal commission released a report that shocked the nation with its grim assessment of public education. With ringing martial metaphors and a dire warning of a “rising tide of mediocrity,” A Nation at Risk summoned policymakers, citizens, parents, teachers, and students to action, proclaiming that learning is “the indispensable investment” for success in this age of information.
That message rang true to Americans, who have always viewed education as the gateway to a brighter tomorrow, both for the individual and for the larger society. By the end of the 1980s, virtually every state had acted to impose the higher standards called for by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Forty-two states had raised high school graduation requirements. Nearly all had instituted a student testing program. Seventy-five percent reported stricter attendance requirements. And 70 percent set academic standards for athletics and extracurricular activities.
But all of these efforts, however well-intentioned, have scarcely touched the classroom. As a new century nears, our schools seem firmly anchored in the old one. After years of blunting their swords of change on the shields of inertia, reformers have come to realize that the journey from educational risk to educational renewal will be longer and more difficult than they had ever imagined.
In public education, everything is connected to everything else. We can’t have a challenging new curriculum unless teachers are willing and able to teach it. We can’t have a shift to higher-order thinking skills without assessments that provoke students to go beyond “drill and skill” and that truly measure their progress. And we can’t have a professional teaching force without substantially improving the environment and the workplace in which teachers practice their craft. What is needed, say the experts, is a strategy for systemic reform—a strategy that includes a vision of what a good school should be and a plan to transform the present educational system so that it produces and nourishes good schools. There is no single blueprint for building the school of tomorrow—no one-size-fits-all approach. A school that could thrive in East Harlem would be unlikely to meet the needs of rural North Dakotans. But there is a widening consensus about what a good school would look like. A good school is a child-centered place where students take more responsibility for their own learning, where teachers lecture less and coach more, where critical thinking and not rote memorization is the objective, and where the task is to prepare the young for what President Clinton calls “a lifetime of learning.”
A good school is a place where decisions are made as close to the heart of the educational enterprise as possible—in the classroom.
The following three stories describe what reformers are doing to build such a school. In the first article, “Designs For Change,” Lynn Olson draws on pioneering innovations now under way in a number of schools to portray in broad strokes what the school of the future might look like. The second and third stories focus on two components of systemic reform that most directly involve teachers: curriculum design and the use of time and space. In “The Heart Of The Matter,” Debra Viadero tells the story of one state’s groundbreaking attempt to define what students should know and be able to do. And in “It’s About Time,” Meg Sommerfeld examines how some schools have begun to reconfigure their classrooms and schedules to escape the confines of “cells and bells.”
Howard Gardner, noted Harvard psychologist, believes that designing schools that are truly committed to “education for understanding” would produce the “biggest revolution in education” in centuries. Ultimately, that revolution will succeed only if the nation’s teachers sign on and lead it. Policymakers and administrators at the national, state, and district levels have vital roles to play. But the revolution in learning that is so crucial to the future of America begins and ends in the classroom.
Designs For Change
After 10 years of reform, the struggle to create a new generation of schools has just begun. But a handful of pioneering efforts offers a glimpse of the future
When educators were invited to design schools of the future for a nationwide competition last fall, the most striking thing about the results was not their diversity but their similarity. Ungraded, multi-age classrooms; assessments based on performance, not guesswork; students who graduate based on what they know and can do rather than the time spent in class; activities that engage children’s hands as well as their heads; and learning done in teams instead of alone at desks: These ideas permeated the hundreds of proposals that were submitted. They are all elements of what one researcher describes as an “emerging oral consensus” about what schooling should look like in the 21st century. It is a far cry from the authoritarian image of one teacher standing at the front of the classroom and pouring information into 20 or 30 waiting heads. And it represents nearly a 180-degree turn from what policymakers were calling for just 10 years ago.
Back then, reformers were nearly single-minded in advocating policies designed to crack down on students and teachers. Indeed, if there was a consistent message in A Nation at Risk, it was to do more of what we’d been doing, only better: More homework. Longer school days and years. More rigorous grading. Better textbooks. More tests.
The only problem is, it didn’t work. The performance of American students, by and large, has remained lackluster on national and international measures of achievement. And young people are just as bored and turned off by schooling as they were before the call to action was sounded. As Lauren Resnick, director of the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, noted in a 1987 address to the American Educational Research Association, American schools have become simultaneously one of the most important elements in our society and one of the most irrelevant.
That’s not surprising, given that much of what passes for education in schools violates what both research and common sense tell us about how people learn best—and contradicts the way we expect them to live and work as adults.
Everyone knows that human beings learn at different rates and in different ways. Schools, on the other hand, insist on treating all children of the same age alike, expecting them to progress in lock-step fashion and to learn mainly by listening. We know that humans are social by nature and increasingly work in situations that demand collaboration. But our schools ask students to sit most of the day without speaking to each other and to compete rather than cooperate.
Businesses and colleges complain that high school graduates are limited in their thinking and problem-solving abilities. But schools stress getting the “right answer” rather than asking the right questions or devising multiple approaches to a problem. Rarely do we cede enough power to students in schools to let them take on the fundamental responsibility for their own learning.
Now, a growing recognition of the mismatch between the worlds inside and outside school has launched a quest for a new model of schooling—a different kind of learning environment to replace the one that has characterized education in the United States for nearly a century.
In the schools that futurists envision, understanding and intellect would be as valued as athletics are today. Students would become active learners who assume an increased responsibility for their own education. And learning would occur in context, in environments that are laden with rich and stimulating materials and that enable students to learn through a variety of avenues. The emphasis would be on applying and using knowledge to solve real-world problems, not just on regurgitating facts. And the traditional walls between education and the broader community would come tumbling down. Every student would be expected to meet high standards for what he or she knows and can do. And the vision of what a successful high school graduate should look like would drive both the curriculum and the assessments.
Most of all, these schools would be communities of learners—in which as much attention is paid to the intellectual and developmental needs of adults as of children. Decisions would be made as close to the classroom as possible. And teachers and principals would have a far greater say over curriculum, budgets, and hiring.
Despite this “emerging oral consensus,” however, there is no agreement about how to get from here to there. It is a lofty vision that could produce as many different kinds of schools as there are students and communities. And few schools—to date—have managed to achieve it. Indeed, after 10 years of reform, the struggle to create a new generation of schools on a broad scale has largely just begun. Nonetheless, the harbingers of change may already be among us.
The first thing a visitor notices about Stanton Elementary School in the Appalachian foothills of Kentucky is the lighting; there are real incandescent lamps here, not fluorescent tubes. Rocking chairs and cushions reside where desks have been. Children aren’t all doing the same thing at the same time. Some are reclining to read. Others listen to recorded books on headsets. There are children typing and writing in journals. Some youngsters are working independently, while others are working in groups. They aren’t all the same age, the same size, or the same ability.
“It’s a much more relaxed atmosphere,” says Faye King, the school’s principal. “And, initially, it might be construed as playful because children are so engaged in their work that it hardly has the appearance of work.”
Most of all, the students are active. It is a school focused on performance; children are doing things, not just watching someone else. In the past, the biggest performer in too many American classrooms has been the teacher.
The implications of this shift to schools focused on students’ work are enormous. “As soon as you say that performance is the key,” notes Theodore Sizer, chairman of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national network of reform-minded educators, “then things like mandatory attendance and always being in a school building are going to become less and less important. If the kid can do it, then I really don’t care how she learns it. So I think the notion of school as a place with a bell at the beginning and a bell at the end, with four walls and a day that starts and a day that ends, is going to start evaporating.”
Much of the theory for such shifts stems from cognitive research on how people learn. By observing both children and adults in real-world settings, researchers have found that human beings are perpetual “meaning-makers.” Put simply, people constantly try to make sense out of their environment by fitting new information into what they already know. Isolated facts, flung at children with no connection to how they will be used or why they are important, have little staying power. Rather than being told about history or about math, such research suggests, children should be immersed in a learning environment where they can see adults modeling the kinds of activities that real historians or mathematicians do; practice some of those activities themselves, with adequate support and supervision; learn to reflect on what they have done; and engage in closer and closer approximations of such complex, real-world experiences.
“What you learn,” Resnick argues, “is not just a body of subject matter but a whole way of being with respect to knowledge or skill.”
Within this broader context, students master individual skills—such as multiplication or sounding out words—as they need them, rather than in isolation. And children are encouraged to think about challenging and complex problems from the start.
In such schools, youngsters explore real things that matter to them. Materials—not textbooks—line the walls. “Primary classrooms are brimming with children’s books, blocks, string, cardboard scraps, plants, animals, rocks, paints, and assorted theater props,” writes George Wood, author of Schools That Work: America’s Most Innovative Public Education Programs. “For older children, there is hands-on equipment—tape recorders, cameras, science apparatus, good novels, charts and graphs, and objects of art.”
In one Apple Classroom of Tomorrow a few years ago, a 6th grade learning-disabled student used a computer to gain access to hour-by-hour satellite maps from the National Weather Service to track the progress of a hurricane moving up the East Coast. “That was impressive enough from our point of view,” recalls David Dwyer, principal scientist for ACOT, a research project sponsored by Apple Computer Inc. that investigates how learning changes when students and teachers have immediate access to technology, “but he was actually then overlaying other kinds of data on top of those maps and trying to make a determination about what forces of nature control the path of a hurricane. In the process, the kid was using scientific visualization tools that real scientists use. And he had a teacher who was comfortable with that kind of information.”
In such schools, activities tend to center on long-term projects that cut across disciplines—not work sheets. These longer and more complicated tasks require larger blocks of time, and the 50-minute class period is giving way to accommodate them.
As the ACOT example demonstrates, a central characteristic of the new generation of schools will be the ability of students to draw on the world outside the classroom for knowledge and information.
“I think we’re going to end up with a more permeable membrane between school and non-school in educating children,” predicts Chester Finn Jr., a member of the Edison Project, a multi-million dollar initiative launched by media magnate Christopher Whittle that is trying to design a network of for-profit schools from scratch. “I think we’ll begin to fashion arrangements in which more learning takes place off-site, and, maybe, in which more non-cognitive things take place on-site.”
In some instances, schools are trying to replicate the larger world inside the classroom through the creation of “micro-societies,” complete with their own legislatures, courts, banks, post offices, newspapers, and businesses. In others, schools are reaching out into the community to offer instructional opportunities for students—while giving them a chance to make a difference.
At the Rindge School of Technical Arts in Cambridge, Mass., students in City- works are using the community as their laboratory, investigating its industries and trades, services and people, neighborhoods and architecture, as a way to learn both academic and vocational skills. Ninth and 10th graders in the program, which began in 1991, take numerous expeditions out into the city and re-create it back in the classroom, using maps, photographs, tapes, oral histories, two-dimensional drawings, and three-dimensional models.
Last year, the teenagers made an 8-by14-foot wall map of Cambridge, lighted up by recycled batteries. They designed a restaurant, argued strenuously about where in the city to place the restaurant to attract a diverse clientele, picked a building they wanted to renovate, made a model, and met with the zoning department to find out whether they would need a variance or permits. Then they studied the nutritional issues involved in designing a menu and used the graphic-arts studio to produce menus, place mats, business cards, and T-shirts.
“The message that we want to give kids,” Principal Lawrence Rosenstock says, “is to take chances and try new things, to work hard, and to do high quality work.”
In schools like this, the focus is on raising the standards and expectations for all students, not just the college-bound. A Nation at Risk implied that a “rising tide of mediocrity” was dragging down the performance of America’s best students. The new conventional wisdom is that, in the future, all students will have to learn to think for a living.
Indeed, one of the few requirements of last fall’s competition by the New American Schools Development Corp. to design “break the mold” schools was that they enable all children to reach “world class” standards in English, mathematics, history, geography, and science. Exactly what world-class standards are and who should set them remains the subject of an intense and often acrimonious debate. But there is little disagreement that schools need to focus more on student outcomes than they have in the past and that those outcomes should be sufficiently rich and challenging to engage all youngsters. Still, our failure as a nation to coalesce around a clear and compelling mission for schools in the 21st century may be one of the primary impediments to reform.
“If you don’t know what you’re aiming for,” notes Howard Gardner, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of several influential books on education, “you’re never going to be able to make any progress.”
Schools that have taken this charge seriously are trying to define what their graduates should know and be able to do, beyond requiring that they sit through four years of English and three years of math. Such schools are shunning multiple-choice tests in favor of a much broader set of measures to let students demonstrate their accomplishments.
At Littleton (Colo.) High School, teachers have defined 19 performance-based graduation requirements for their students, beginning with the class of 1995. Some examples: “The Littleton High School graduate speaks and writes articulately and effectively,” “the Littleton High School graduate has actively contributed to community or school-service organizations,” and “the Littleton High School graduate effectively applies mathematical principles and operations to solve a range of problems.”
Thirty-six different “demonstrations,” or assessments of a student’s performance, are tied to these graduation criteria. In one instance, teenagers complete an impromptu, timed writing assignment in a controlled setting. In another, students amass a portfolio of different writing samples over time. Each of the “demonstrations” specifies which of the graduation requirements is being met, what the task entails, the criteria for completing it successfully, the rubric that teachers will use to score the project, and the testing conditions—such as whether a student can use a spell checker or a calculator.
“Keeping the end clearly in sight,” argues Littleton High Principal Tim Westerberg, “you move backward to ask, `What does that mean for the curriculum? How do we need to repackage, or maybe even rewrite and reorganize and redesign, our curriculum for the students to engage in learning experiences that logically lead to performing well on these assessments?’ The goal is to have what you test be very much a part of what kids are learning on a day-to-day basis in the classroom.”
Over time, as students assume more responsibility for these assessments, they become their own best critics. They get better and better at pinpointing both what they know and what they don’t, what good performance looks like, and where their own performance falls short.
If schools are to sustain clear and high expectations for all students, they must ensure that everyone has equal access to knowledge. This is a key goal of the Humanitas program in Los Angeles.
The program is designed to provide all youngsters with the kind of challenging, intellectual curriculum traditionally reserved for the very few. Teenagers in the program, which operates in 37 high schools, are recruited from a cross section of the student body. The program goes after the “average kid,” which in Los Angeles includes a large percentage of children from poor and minority families.
The curriculum is organized around central concepts—”the roots of prejudice” is one example—that draw from an array of disciplines which are taught separately at the vast majority of schools. Students read original source materials, rather than textbooks. And they write a lot, with a focus on the interdisciplinary essay that concludes each unit.
According to an assessment of the project by the Center for the Study of Evaluation at the University of California at Los Angeles, Humanitas students write better and have a surer grasp of abstract concepts than do other students. They are also absent less, and a smaller percentage drop out of school.
But “as rich as our curriculum is, and as engaging as the work is,” hypothesizes Cris Gutierrez, a Humanitas teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School, “the fundamental difference is that we hold students responsible to a community within a community. And because they’re so well known in it, and because we’re so well known to them, it’s easier and more feasible to take risks with them intellectually. And for the faculty to do the same with each other.”
As Gutierrez’s comment illustrates, the needs of teachers in such settings are crucial. Their intellectual development and that of their students go hand in hand. According to one principal, shifting the teacher’s role from that of expert to coach requires the “highest level of expertise imaginable.” Teachers in these learning environments must have a firm grasp of educational research; an understanding of their subject and how to teach it; knowledge about child development and individual learning styles and how to apply them; a willingness to work in groups; and the ability to structure lessons so that students can help determine the direction their course work will take.
Most of all, they must have the time and opportunity to learn from each other and to take risks together. In Humanitas, for instance, teachers can enroll in a twoweek summer academy. And during the school year, those new to the program are released from their teaching duties to attend workshops at one of three Humanitas Teachers’ Centers.
In most schools, however, teachers rarely have the chance to catch their breath, let alone engage in such self-rejuvenation.
Deborah Meier, founder of Central Park East Secondary School in New York City—one of the few schools consistently cited as an example of where education should be headed—argues that schools “must create a passion for learning, not only among children but also among their teachers.” Both, she asserts, have become “passion-impaired.”
“At the very least,” she writes in a provocative article in Teachers College Record, “one must imagine schools in which teachers are in frequent conversation with each other about their work, have easy and necessary access to each other’s classrooms, take it for granted that they should comment on each other’s work, and have the time to develop common standards for student work.”
There is also a growing recognition that if educators are to feel a sense of ownership over their schools—and if we are to take advantage of their knowledge and expertise—then most decisions regarding budgets, hiring, and curriculum should be made at the school site. “What is certain,” Meier adds, “is that this kind of collegiality works best in settings that are sufficiently small and intimate, that self-governance and staff-development schemes don’t exhaust teachers’ energies or divert them from their central task.”
The challenge is to pull all of these elements together into a school that works. Within education circles, Central Park East is widely viewed as one of the few places that have managed to achieve this vision. As a result, the school has taken on a mythical stature fast approaching that of Camelot. Its prominence speaks as much to the difficulty of creating truly innovative schools as it does to the program itself.
The school, located in East Harlem, looks like any other public education facility from the outside, perhaps more rundown than most. But it is what happens inside that counts. At Central Park East, children stay with teachers for two years. In the high school, most students see no more than two or three different teachers a day, including an adviser who spends an hour a day with a small group of 15 teenagers. Every teacher is responsible for one interdisciplinary course, such as literature and history or math and science. And the typical class is about two hours long, providing enough time to include whole-class seminars, small-group work, independent study, and one-on-one coaching by teachers and students.
Working with one set of students, teachers teach in collaborative settings, with four or five instructors working in close proximity. This approach means that teachers can easily make decisions, alter plans, rearrange schedules, regroup students, share ideas, and observe each other’s work. Most decisions are made as close to the classroom as possible. And teachers collectively decide on content, pedagogy, and assessment.
As Meier notes, the whole staff is “not enormous.” Neither Central Park East Secondary School nor the district’s elementary schools that are modeled on the same concepts include more than 450 students, and most are limited to 200 or 300. “That means,” she observes, “a faculty that can sit in a circle in one room and get a chance to hear each other.”
The result is that students succeed in far greater measure than their socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds would predict. About 90 percent of those who attend the schools graduate from high school, in a city where nearly half of all students drop out. Half of those who graduate from Central Park East elementary schools go on to college, and the numbers are even higher for those who attend the high school.
To many, Central Park East is a beacon. But how the components of the modern learning environment come together may differ from school to school, based on its students and its community. And while there are many elements of good schools to be found, places like Central Park East that have succeeded in putting most of the pieces together remain a rarity. Researchers are just beginning to understand how complicated it is to change entrenched beliefs and practices at the school site and how weak our previous interventions have been.
For the past two years, Fred Newmann and his colleagues at the Center on the Organization and Restructuring of Schools at the University of Wisconsin at Madison have been engaged in a nationwide search for reinvented schools. “It’s been very difficult to find them,” he laments. “We’ve received nominations from over 300 schools, and we’ve made phone interviews to all of those and then site visits to close to 40 of them. And at this point, we’ve only been able to find 15 [schools] to study, and the schools we’re studying actually don’t combine all of it.”
What’s more, once you move beyond the small group of educational policy- makers who run into each other at conferences and on national commissions, whatever consensus there is quickly dissipates. If there is a radically new vision of schooling emerging, it has yet to grab hold in the vast majority of schools and classrooms—or in the hearts and minds of many American schoolteachers.
But even among the cozy crowd of educational insiders, areas of ardent disagreement remain.
Should standards and assessments be developed at the national level or by individual schools and communities? People howl and scream at each other on that issue. Questions about what constitutes the “canon” of cultural literacy, or whether there exists a core body of knowledge that all students should possess, provoke a similar response.
Who should be allowed to teach in schools? And to what extent should schools be the site for, if not the provider of, the many noneducational services that students and their families need? Although few people continue to profess that the school can do it all—absent the support of families, the mass media, and other non-school institutions—there is more rhetoric on this topic than action.
Visionaries also differ widely on the role that technology should play in the schools of tomorrow. In a world where virtually everyone has access to a television set and a telephone, and may soon have access to a computer over the same phone lines, it would be ludicrous to think that schools can retain their role as the sole—or even the primary—purveyors of information in our society. In many ways, they forfeited that role long ago.
In his new book, School’s Out: Hyperlearning, the New Technology, and the End of Education, Lewis Perelman argues that rapid advances in technology will soon make existing schools obsolete and that any attempts to revamp or revitalize them are doomed to failure.
Others concede that technology will play a far more ubiquitous role in the schools of tomorrow but suggest that that day may be a long way off. “If you ask me, do I expect the Apple or IBM or AT&T school of tomorrow to be filled with technology and long-distance satellites and that sort of thing, certainly not in my lifetime,” says Harvard’s Howard Gardner. “That’s at least, in part, because I think it’s too expensive.”
But the biggest disagreement centers on just how radical a change is required to make schools more productive.
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says, “I used to think we basically had to abandon what we have now because it doesn’t work.” But his view changed when he realized that students in Germany, Japan, Canada, and France seem to learn very well in more traditional learning environments. So the AFT now has two objectives: “One is to take those pioneers who want to build the world of tomorrow and give them the wherewithal and the resources to do it. But that doesn’t take everybody else off the hook. They’ve got to figure out how to get our schools to be as good, in terms of student outcomes, as schools that look fairly traditional in other countries.”
Indeed, despite recent attempts to house schools at the work site or in giant shopping malls, few people expect that the school—as such—will disappear. “When you talk about the school of the future,” says Roger Semerad of the RJR Nabisco Foundation, which has underwritten an effort to create “next century” schools, “my guess is we will still have a building, and we will still have teachers and administrators. But I hope that we have an entirely different process, like we have a new process for building cars or making steel.”
The real question, then, is whether we know how to get from here to there. Because while stories abound about the dynamic teacher or the dynamic principal who turned a school around, the future of public education rests with the thousands of ordinary individuals who populate the 80,000 public school buildings in the United States. Somehow, they need to own a vision that only a few principals and teachers now share.
If nothing else, the last decade has shown the need for educators to maintain a little humility about the pace of change and how to bring it about. “Every single school must become a revolutionary cell,” argues Faye King of Stanton Elementary in Kentucky. “It’s not something that can be done from the outside. It is a synergy that arises among the staff and cannot be imposed.”
But in an environment that has proved, until now, so inhospitable to the widespread growth and nourishment of good schools, a consensus is growing that something must be done to provide a framework in which communities of learners can flourish.
The Heart of the Matter
Unlike most other states, California sought to improve schools by changing the very lifeblood of the educational enterprise: the curriculum
It is “math choice” time in Jane Fulkerson’s combined kindergarten and 1st grade class in San Diego, and there is an audible buzz in the air. Children are sprawled around the room as they engage in a wide range of carefully chosen activities. In one corner, tiny hands spin a number on a cardboard spinner and count out colorfully painted beans. On the floor, two small girls connect colored plastic cubes to make patterns repeat. Three children at a nearby table color in rows of seven blocks each on a work sheet.
“You have to make different patterns,” explains one of the three, a pig-tailed girl in a spotless pink sweat suit. “But they all equal seven.”
Fulkerson herself is working with a group of children as they move the hands on a clock and discuss the time of day they go to school and then the time they go to bed. As the children become excited, their voices rise and then fall again. The buzzing sound resumes. To Fulkerson and other teachers like her at Elizabeth Freese Elementary School, that buzz is the sound of children learning. “I think,” the veteran teacher says, “that this is the right way to teach.”
The “right way,” to Fulkerson’s way of thinking, means giving students plenty of hands-on learning opportunities and helping them begin to think critically and to talk with one another and work together to solve problems. She wants to expose her students early on to a wide variety of mathematical elements—patterns, measurement, even some geometry. And she wants to instill a basic sense of what numbers mean and how they feel. A teacher for 18 years, Fulkerson has come to this new view of teaching through the California mathematics framework. California’s subject-matter frameworks—there are now eight of them—are the focus of a pioneering effort in the state to improve schooling for every child in every classroom. Unlike most state reforms, which tinkered around the edges of schooling, California’s started by aiming directly at the heart of the educational enterprise: the teaching and learning that goes on in the classroom every day. And the frameworks lay out the blueprint for a fundamental overhaul in curriculum.
Where state curriculum guidelines have traditionally been lists of topics schools should cover at each grade level, California’s curriculum frameworks seek to articulate a more comprehensive—yet, at the same time, less specific—view of what teaching in a particular subject should look like.
Rather than simply specifying content, the frameworks call for changes in the way subjects are taught. They urge educators to move away from the traditional drill-and-skill approaches to teaching and to stress, instead, teaching children to think critically and to solve problems. They advocate teaching fewer topics in greater depth. And, rather than laying out topics by grade level, they only broadly state the concepts, themes, or “big ideas” students should master.
To be sure, officials in California recognize that reforming the curriculum alone won’t improve schools, and they see reform as a complex jigsaw puzzle that also includes the kinds of tests students are given, the quality and availability of training for teachers, and the kinds of educational materials available to schools. But the key piece of the puzzle is the curriculum.
“The whole reform effort needs to be driven by what you want to teach and how you want to teach it,” says Bill Honig, who spearheaded the frameworks when he was the state’s superintendent of public instruction. “Some of the other reforms never get to that.”
While California has led the way, a number of other states—Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, and South Carolina, among them—have also begun to use curriculum documents to anchor their school reform efforts. Similar reforms are under way at the national level, as well. In 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics published national curriculum standards. Now, such standards for what students should know and be able to do at key points in their schooling are being hammered out in seven other subjects.
Most of these new standards-setting efforts came after former President Bush and the nation’s governors, in a historic “education summit” nearly three and a half years ago, agreed that one goal for education should be that American students meet “world class” standards for learning in major academic subjects. Now, reformers are trying to convince federal lawmakers that a national system of examinations is needed to reinforce those standards.
All of this activity is remarkable for a nation that has long cherished the notion that control of the content of schooling belongs largely in the hands of local communities. “Local control met its Waterloo at the October 1989 education summit of the president and the governors,” says Allen Odden, an education professor at the University of Southern California. “Ten years ago, this would never have happened. Now we’re saying, `Yes, it’s possible to have national standards, and it is desirable.’ “
Those efforts, however, are still new, and disagreements remain about how to proceed.
While California and the national efforts seek to define the curriculum subject by subject, other states and some educators argue for a more holistic view that would look at the full range of student learning and foster interdisciplinary instruction. Educators in Maine, for example, point out that learning is naturally interdisciplinary and that what students learn in one subject is inextricably linked to what they learn in another. Part of the teacher’s task, they say, is to help pupils see the connections. Thus, that state’s curriculum-reform document divides learning into much broader areas, such as “communication” and “personal and global stewardship.”
Whatever the approach, putting the entire puzzle together is a daunting enterprise, as California’s experience shows. If there is a lesson to be drawn from California, it is that change is complicated, and it moves at a glacial pace.
Although California has been working at curriculum-centered reform for eight years now, the effort has reached, at most, only two-thirds of the teachers in the state. The state’s assessment system, which many say drives instruction, is only this year fully implementing a redesign that more closely matches the frameworks. And efforts to provide professional development for teachers—particularly pre-service education for prospective teachers—to help them reorient instruction along the lines of the frameworks have fallen far short of the need.
“The framework is the push, and then you have to ask yourself, `How do you get that done?’” Honig says. “How you get that done is a very difficult, very complex question.”
Nevertheless, the California experience has provided a beacon for educators nationwide. If the largest and most diverse state can define what its students ought to know and be able to do, surely other states and the nation as a whole can do the same.
To a degree, the curriculum has always figured in attempts to improve American schooling. In the 1950s, our fear of losing the space race led to the “Sputnik revolution”; schools nationwide beefed up math and science teaching. But education historians say those changes weren’t widely implemented and had all but disappeared from schools by the mid-1970s.
In more recent decades, the “back to basics” movement fueled a renewed emphasis on basic arithmetic and reading skills. States also began to require “minimum competency” tests as a condition of high school graduation. That movement achieved one of its central aims: It made strides in closing the achievement gap that separates African-American students from their white peers. But there were also drawbacks. “I think it created an artificial ceiling for children and teachers, and when the minimum becomes the ceiling, it doesn’t allow for stretching all children,” says Barbara Nielsen, South Carolina’s state superintendent of schools. Her state, one of the first to adopt a basic-skills curriculum, is now working to develop frameworks modeled on the California approach.
The emphasis on basic academic skills also reinforced what many claimed was wrong with education in the first place. There was too much drill and skill, too much emphasis on rote learning, and too few opportunities for students to learn to think.
Throughout most of the current education-reform era, however, few efforts have dealt directly with what is taught in schools. A Nation at Risk, the landmark report that spawned the reform movement, called only for students to take more courses—four years of English, three of math, three of science, and so on—without saying what should make up the content of those courses. By the end of the 1980s, however, 42 states had raised high school graduation requirements in response to the report.
“In fact, what happened was that people took the same courses they were teaching anyway and retitled them,” says Diane Ravitch, who worked in the U.S. Education Department under President Bush as assistant secretary for educational research and improvement. By contrast, Ravitch says, reform should start with a definition of what students should know and be able to do and work backward from there to redesign the system to achieve those ends. No place, she says, took that idea more seriously than California. “California led with the key to systemic reform,” Ravitch says. “That is, if you want to change curriculum, where do you start?” The answer, she says, is with the curriculum.
Educators in California credit Honig, the exuberant and outspoken former superintendent, with having led the state’s crusade to overhaul the content of schooling. “He really has been the dean of instruction here in California,” says Michael Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University.
In the early 1980s, when he was elected superintendent for the first time, Honig set out almost immediately to remake the state’s curriculum frameworks. He has been an aggressive advocate for them ever since and has taken a direct hand in their development. Although curriculum commissions were set up to put together the frameworks, Honig had a substantial say in choosing the teachers, subject matter experts, and businesspeople who were appointed to the panels. At times, he sent drafts of the frameworks back for revision up to nine times.
But Honig’s continued participation in the frameworks process is unlikely. He was removed from his job earlier this year following his conviction on four felony conflict-of-interest charges.
As a result of Honig’s stewardship, however, almost all of the frameworks have “a philosophical edge,” says Kirst. The superintendent’s leadership enabled the state to “get a document with specific content and pedagogical philosophies without watering it down to satisfy every special interest,” he says. “Some groups are happy with that, and some are not happy.”
One of Honig’s specifications for the frameworks was that they have what he calls “pitch.”
“You want them to be not too general so that there is no focus and not so specific that everybody can’t buy into it,” he says. Members of the curriculum committees say that balance was often difficult to strike. That, coupled with the principle that “less is more,” also meant that tough decisions had to be made about what to keep in the frameworks and what to throw out. Much of what was cut or de-emphasized were topics that were once commonly taught in schools.
In math, computational skills were played down in favor of exposing students to what the document calls the “strands” of mathematics—geometry, statistics and probability, logic, measurement, algebra, patterns and functions, and number sense. Some educators still contend that the emphasis in the language arts framework on having young children read literature and whole texts came at the expense of instruction in phonics. And the history and social sciences framework remains controversial among educators partly because some social studies teachers contend its emphasis on history shortchanges economics, political science, sociology, and other subjects that traditionally fall under that umbrella.
Moreover, when it came time to choose textbooks reflecting the history-social sciences framework, a heated debate erupted over the proper emphasis on the history of various racial and ethnic groups. While the books, in keeping with the framework, attempted to strike a balance between stressing diversity and the common heritage, some argue that they didn’t go far enough in presenting the multicultural view. In Oakland, for example, school officials refused to purchase any of the textbooks adopted under the framework.
Some of those philosophical shifts remain controversial. Groups of parents, for example, still question the diminishing emphasis on drilling addition, multiplication, subtraction, and division skills into children. “I still hear stories about people going into McDonald’s, and the kids there can’t make change,” says Susan Braun, a school board member in San Diego. “People are very concerned their children won’t be able to add.” And parents and teachers alike worry that many children won’t learn phonetic skills in classrooms where real literature is emphasized.
Indeed, these concerns highlight one of the fundamental conflicts in standards-setting and curriculum reform—the issue of depth over breadth. As teachers begin to stress long-term projects and deeper understandings for children, they touch on fewer topics. Why, some parents ask, do my younger children seem to be learning less in school than their older siblings did?
Of the eight visionary frameworks created so far, the math document was the first. Since then, reform-minded frameworks have been completed in language arts, science, health, history and social sciences, foreign languages, the arts, and physical education. Completed in 1985 and updated again in 1992, the math framework brings the state’s reform process full circle.
In San Diego, where Jane Fulkerson teaches, administrators began to acquaint teachers with the coming changes a year before the frameworks were released. “The frameworks are not something you can just give out to teachers and forget about it,” says Vance Mills, the district’s instructional-team leader for math, science, and education technology.
Teacher workshops and in-service sessions were held. The district also made an effort to link the frameworks with other reform efforts already going on there. San Diego is a district noted for its willingness to experiment with educational reforms, and many of those projects, such as the New Standards Project, a privately funded effort to develop what could become a national system of standards and assessments, were compatible with the changes called for in most of the frameworks.
District officials also have begun in recent years to take steps to make sure teachers have the equipment they need to teach in the new ways called for in the frameworks. For example, in an effort to move students beyond arithmetic and into mathematics, the framework recommends extensive use of calculators. Now, every time the district buys a textbook, it also buys a calculator.
The school system also began “selling” the new approach to parents at every opportunity. San Diego schools have a “family math” program aimed at helping parents and children work together to improve their math skills. And many schools used the program as a vehicle to explain the frameworks to parents. “Few parents were taught in these ways, and they think their kids are playing,” says Susan Manning, a resource teacher at Freese Elementary School, where the “family math” program was used to great advantage.
Despite the efforts of the San Diego school district, implementation of the frameworks at the classroom level has been uneven—as it has been across the state. “You find that one-third of teachers are willing to go to volunteer sessions and look to make changes,” Mills says. “Another one-third are not necessarily willing to volunteer, but they’re willing to make changes, and you have to conduct the in-service training during school hours. The last third are the ones who will never change, and you just have to hope they’ll retire.”
Statewide, even Honig estimates that no more than 7 percent of teachers have fully adapted their teaching styles to the frameworks. He notes, however: “I met a teacher, a guy in Los Angeles, who told me that in the last three years, he has really shifted his teaching in the classroom to give a lot more problem solving. Is he teaching the full framework? Probably not. Are his kids getting some benefit? Yes.”
Fulkerson is a teacher who might fall in the first two-thirds of teachers described by Mills. She requested a copy of the math framework when it was published, and she uses it when she plans her course of instruction for the year. Elsewhere at Freese Elementary, there is evidence that other teachers are making similar efforts to integrate the frameworks’ philosophies into practice. In one 1st grade classroom, students have compiled a bar graph comparing all the sunny days of the year with the rainy days. In every class, there are boxes of manipulatives—interlocking plastic cubes and beans, barrettes, and buttons to count— tools intended to help students feel and see the math concepts they are learning.
Students in a 4th grade classroom use calculators to work out story problems. Then, they put them aside to do some “mental math,” figuring out ways to make computations quickly in their heads. The problem they are given is 30 x 4 + 5. When a boy volunteers an answer, the teacher, Kristina Wenger, replies: “I want to know what Jared did in his mind to figure that out.” Several methods for solving the equation are suggested. One lesson implicit in this exercise is that there is no one “right” way to solve a problem.
Still, in a high school in another part of the city, the intractable nature of more traditional instructional practices is plainly evident.
One of the biggest changes for high schools introduced by the math framework is a course known as Math A. The course is meant to replace such traditional courses as general or consumer mathematics and to serve as a bridge between arithmetic and algebra. Among its features is an emphasis on giving students authentic problems that are rooted in real-life experiences. It recommends long-term projects for students to undertake collaboratively, and it incorporates some “higher mathematics,” such as algebra and geometry. The state provides five days of specialized training—more than is usually the case—for teachers of Math A and its successor course, Math B, offered to students who don’t immediately go on to algebra.
In this particular high school, however, students are seated at individual desks in neat rows. They work alone on work sheets that keep them busy only as long as the 45-minute class period. The work sheets depict household items with three prices listed above them. The task for students is to guess which of the prices would have been correct in 1900. To find out if their guesses are correct, the students are told to find the mean of an unrelated group of numbers listed in a corner near each picture. While the exercise employs some practical information, it is hardly the kind of real-life problem that students might encounter outside school. Says Thomas Payzant, the district’s superintendent of schools (recently named U.S. assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education), “We’re trying a lot of things, and we’re trying to learn from them, but we don’t have it all figured out yet.”
Like many observers of the California program, Payzant believes the biggest obstacle to implementing the curriculum frameworks is the lack of professional development to support the kinds of fundamental changes teachers must make.
The state allows schools to set aside eight noninstructional days each year for training. But the 1992 math framework suggests that teachers need at least 10 days of in-service training just to teach it correctly. Moreover, funds to pay the cost of such training or for the wages of substitute teachers are scarce. “It’s hard when you get into budget-cutting and have to make tough decisions,” Payzant says. “Very typically, staff-development time is the first thing that goes.”
San Diego has had to make some of those tough decisions. The school system’s budget declined by $22 million last year and is expected to decrease by up to $9 million more this year. The budget cuts force schools such as Freese Elementary to pick and choose among the professional-development opportunities available to their teachers. The question for the school’s staff this year was: Should teachers attend a countywide language arts conference or go to a similar two-day event in mathematics? The school opted for the former.
The same kinds of financial pressures are working against schools statewide. Hit hard by the recession and cuts in federal defense spending, state spending for education deteriorated sharply in the late 1980s. The state slipped from 31st in the nation during the 1982-83 school year to 43rd in per-pupil expenditures.
It isn’t, however, just a matter of getting enough time or money for professional development; having the right kinds of training opportunities is equally important. “Even the best skill-training workshops are insufficient for the kind of major changes we want to get out of the frameworks,” says Allen Odden of USC, who, with Stanford University’s Michael Kirst, directs Policy Analysis for California Education, a state policy-research consortium.
What is also needed, says Milbrey McLaughlin, director of the National Research Center on the Context of Secondary School Teaching at Stanford University, are “learning communities” that support teachers as they attempt to unlearn old methods and construct new practices for themselves. Recent research conducted by the center has found that in schools where teachers can observe their colleagues’ classrooms or meet to talk about practice, the frameworks were “strong stuff that forced good, productive discussions around issues of content and pedagogy.”
To nurture that kind of discussion, a number of comprehensive professional development programs are now under way throughout the state. The California Math Project, for example, operates at 17 sites across the state and links teachers with university math educators for three to four weeks of training. The teachers then return to their schools to provide support and training for their colleagues. Those “teacher leaders” also receive follow-up attention over a period of three to four years.
“Teachers need to take the time to understand the mathematics involved,” says Nicholas Branca, who directs the effort. “It’s almost like having a different mindset about what mathematics is and how you’re teaching it.” The math project was launched in the early 1980s, even before the math framework was in place. Two years ago, similar projects were put in place in the seven other subject areas with frameworks.
This kind of in-service opportunity is important, but pre-service training at the college level must also be a key part of the equation if the frameworks are to become solidly integrated into practice. State officials concede, however, that there is no mechanism for making sure that education school students are exposed to the frameworks’ concepts and philosophies before they become teachers. Those universities and colleges that are providing such training for students—and there are some—are doing so on their own.
State curricular reform can also be thwarted by standardized tests that bear little or no resemblance to the kind of teaching called for by the reform initiatives.
To address this problem, California in 1987 began work on an assessment that would be compatible with its new curricular frameworks and measure, for the first time, what students are able to do with what they know. That effort came to an abrupt halt in 1990, however, when then-Gov. George Deukmeijian, embroiled in a feud with Honig, cut off funding for the California Assessment Program, known less formally as CAP. As a result, some schools across the state that had adapted their teaching to the new frameworks saw their students’ standardized test scores dip—particularly in the area of language arts.
This spring, however, California is finally poised to put that piece of the puzzle in place. The state’s newly redesigned assessments will be administered to nearly every student in reading, writing, and math in grades 4, 8, and 10. Next year, the assessments are expected to be expanded to include history and science in grades 5, 8, and 10. “When we get that CAP in place, I think you’ll see a major change,” says Mills of San Diego.
Textbooks and curricular materials— another piece in the state’s systemic reform effort—have been slow to change, as well.
California is the second-largest market among the 22 states that approve textbooks for use in classrooms. The state hoped to use its considerable clout with the textbook-publishing industry to pressure publishers to produce materials that would complement its frameworks. In math, the state board of education set out to make those intentions known early on by rejecting all of the textbooks submitted by publishers after the 1985 framework was adopted.
Publishers were permitted to try again, but their next efforts, Honig says, “were still only about 20 percent there.” As a result, teachers went for years with either old texts or new ones that didn’t match up with the framework.
“All of the new books are really heavily into the manipulatives, but they don’t do the business of teaching math,” says David Crum, a 2nd grade teacher at Euclid Elementary School in San Diego. “I actually keep my framework in my room to refer to because the books are so weird.”
For other teachers, it was easier to simply rely on whatever textbooks were at hand. To plug the gap, the state has been developing curriculum units that teachers could insert into their teaching. But that effort is far from complete.
There are signs, however, that the next round of math textbooks may represent a significant improvement over the previous generation. Just this year, the Glencoe division of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill published the first textbook designed for California’s Math A course. Designed as a resource book for students, the new book contains suggestions for long-term projects and activities and, in appendices at the back, lists the concepts, applications, formulas, weights, and measures students will need to know to carry out the suggested activities. Noting, for example, that a person of average metabolism will gain a pound of weight after consuming 3,500 calories more than normal, one such activity asks students to work with a partner and keep track of the calories they consume each day. Then, pupils are asked to find their average daily calorie consumption and determine how many calories they must consume to gain or lose weight. Even teachers who support the curricular frameworks face practical problems in implementing them—problems, they contend, that were never anticipated by reformers. Patricia Climes, who teaches Math A at Crawford High School in San Diego, points out that, on average, one-third of her students are absent from class on any given day. The high absentee rate, she says, prevents her from assigning long-term projects to her students. Often, Climes and other teachers say, the students in Math A are those who have the most difficulties in school. Many are poor, and some are recent immigrants who don’t have a strong command of English. “Sometimes,” Climes says, “many of us in the city schools feel some of these materials are a little `pie in the sky’ for our kids.”
Other niggling factors also get in the way of full implementation. Some teachers, for example, say they may not undertake cooperative learning tasks with their students because the desks in their classrooms are of varying heights and not suited for grouping.
For the most part, however, California educators say that the pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fall into place. “There’s widespread recognition of the frameworks,” Kirst says. “A lot of districts are briefing teachers on them, and a lot of teachers are trying them.”
Among the teachers who are, many say the new content and methods are paying off for students. “I think it’s making a difference in their self-concepts, in their risk-taking, and in their math,” says Jane Fulkerson of Freese Elementary, which has a predominantly minority, low income student population. “In my classroom this year, I’m not seeing kids who are feeling bad about themselves in math.”
Still, many believe that real classroom-by-classroom change may be years away yet; some predict it may not come until the turn of the century.
In the meantime, educators must be “vigilant” and keep the focus on improving teaching and learning for all students, says Payzant, San Diego’s school superintendent. If they don’t, he warns, “this will run the risk of being viewed as one more misguided reform effort in the history of American education.”
It's About Time
The rigid and stifling format of the typical American classroom is a remnant of a bygone era. Now, a growing number of reformers are turning the traditional school day on its head
At 6 each morning, about 50 children begin their school day at Northfield Elementary School in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Many will remain there until 6 in the evening as part of an extended-day program offering academic and enrichment activities.
Although students at City Magnet School in Lowell, Mass., don’t start off quite as early, their school day isn’t conventional either. Mornings are spent learning the principles of publishing, economics, and government; in the afternoons, students put such skills into practice at their “jobs” at mock newspapers, banks, and courthouses within the school.
Some 3,000 miles away in Chula Vista, Calif., students in an alternative program attend school for only two hours a day. They spend the rest of their week completing independent assignments and working at jobs. The “learning centers” they attend are open year-round, from 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
These are the exceptions to the rule.
Each is trying to confront one of the most implacable barriers to school reform in the United States: the rigid use of time and space that affects teachers’ working conditions, the kinds of projects that students can pursue, and the ties that schools have with their communities.
Ten years after A Nation at Risk recommended extending the length of the school day to seven hours, instituting a 200- to 220-day school year, and establishing 11-month contracts for teachers, most schools still operate on a six-and-a-half-hour day and a 180-day year. And most teachers still work on a September-to-June calendar. Moreover, the physical setup of the typical American classroom and school has changed little. The sight of a single teacher lecturing to 25 pupils in uniform rows of desks remains the norm.
Still, a small but growing number of educators are reexamining the school year and, perhaps more importantly, questioning the unwritten rules that govern how time and space are used. In some places, they are turning the traditional school day on its head. Many schools, for example, have shifted to a year-round schedule. Others have extended their hours before and after school and into the weekend. Still others have instituted flexible schedules for both students and teachers, with time set aside for large- and small-group instruction and for teacher planning.
In some instances, school buildings are being opened up to the community. In others, the use of space within schools is being reconfigured to make room for team teaching, peer coaching, and “schools within schools.”
“I happen to believe that time is the uncracked nut,” says Milton Goldberg, executive director of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning. “It’s a prism through which we can look anew at teacher time, student motivation, and curriculum.”
The standard academic calendar has its roots in the 19th century. The first compulsory-attendance law was enacted in Massachusetts in 1852 and required students to attend school for 12 weeks. With the rise of industrialism, the need for a more skilled work force became more pronounced. By 1890, as a result, the average school year had increased to the current standard of about 36 weeks.
Thirty-two states, the District of Columbia, and two territories now require 180-day school years. Two states require more— 182 days in Ohio, 181 in Kansas—and the rest mandate 174 to 176 days. In most states, these requirements are minimum standards, but schools and districts usually do not exceed them.
Nonetheless, rethinking the structure of the school day is “absolutely essential” to address the demands on education in the 1990s, says Theodore Mitchell, dean of the graduate school of education at the University of California at Los Angeles. The previous emphasis on quantity over quality of instruction, he argues, “is why A Nation at Risk continues to be problematic, with its demands for harder, faster, and more of the same.”
In traditional, regimented schools, time has been the constant and learning the variable. Each student is expected to spend roughly the same number of hours in school, complete the same number of courses, and attend school for the same number of years. But what students learn in school has been allowed to vary widely. More recently, support has emerged for the notion that learning should be the constant and time the variable. “There isn’t a teacher in the world who won’t say some kids may need three minutes [to learn something], some may need three hours, and some may need three days,” says Gary Watts, senior director of the National Education Association’s National Center for Innovation.
Proponents of a more student-centered approach believe schools need more flexible structures that will enable students to take as much or as little time as necessary to master their course work and will give teachers more control over the time they need to prepare and teach their lessons. Indeed, as the call goes out for all students to engage in higher-order thinking and to learn through hands-on activities and teamwork, the use of time and space in schools must be reconfigured.
While this restructuring could prove both tremendously expensive and a logistical nightmare, signs are emerging that the public is willing to accept a greater degree of variation in how schools organize their calendars and facilities. In 1991, the annual Gallup Poll on education found that 51 percent of respondents endorsed a 210-day school year—the first time that a majority had supported a longer calendar since the poll began including the question in 1981. Last year, the percentage favoring such a shift increased to 55 percent, and even larger majorities advocated keeping educational facilities open after school, on weekends, and during vacations.
Other indicators also suggest that the rethinking of how schools use time and space is gaining momentum as a central element in the restructuring movement:
* The federally sponsored National Education Commission on Time and Learning is compiling data on how schools across the country use time. Its report to Congress next year will include recommendations on the length of the school day and school year, the time allocated for various academic subjects, and how to make better use of the time currently available.
* Many reform-minded projects and networks have sought to shatter the status quo of how time and space are apportioned within a school building. Several winners of the design competition sponsored by the RJR Nabisco Foundation, for example, have used their grant money to extend the school day or year, compensate teachers for additional professional-development time, or open their buildings to the community at nights and on weekends. And similar ideas permeate the blueprints for “break the mold” schools now being developed by contractors with the New American Schools Development Corp.
* Slightly more than 600,000 children in kindergarten through 8th grade were enrolled in 13,500 public school-based before- and after-school programs in 1991.
Still, most agree that challenging such deeply ingrained school orthodoxies as the highly regimented schedule and the traditional classroom can be a formidable task. “I think that there is a sense that the school day is a part of some kind of natural law of the same symbolic weight as gravity,” observes Mitchell, the UCLA dean. “We have lived with the system for so long and become so accustomed to it that it’s one of the basic identifying characteristics of the school. And when we attempt to change those basic underlying structures, we threaten people’s familiarity with the very institution.”
The main problem with the traditional school day, Mitchell asserts, is that it was designed to meet the social and economic goals of an earlier era. “It was built around an industrial model,” the dean explains, “in which teaching children to respond to differential tasks by moving in an orderly fashion at different points according to a well-structured and fragmented day was precisely the type of schooling that was required by a society that was highly industrialized, mechanized, and routinized.”
Such a structure, however, no longer meets the needs of today’s students. Our highly technological world both enables and demands a more flexible use of time in school. But here’s the rub: Introducing such changes runs smack up against the fact that the entire system of accountability in American education is itself anchored in seat time. “Just about any student who logs enough time at a school desk will get his diploma,” Edward Fiske, former education editor of The New York Times, writes in his book Smart Schools, Smart Kids. “What counts is not so much what you know as how fast you can deliver it.”
A retired administrator at a Long Island high school once kept a sign on his bulletin board that caused many of his colleagues to chuckle knowingly. It read, “We have met the enemy, and they are hours.”
At all points on the political spectrum, there is agreement that educators do not have enough time to do all that is expected of them. “Teachers don’t usually have time to go to the bathroom, so they don’t have very much time to think,” observes Joan Lipsitz, education program officer at the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis. “What has been called the ‘dailiness’ of teaching is so time-consuming that to find any time in the school day for reflection and planning and dreaming, asking questions like ‘What if?’ has been very difficult.”
Part of the problem, most educators would agree, is that there has never been enough time for meaningful professional development in the schools. The prevailing belief that teachers are only working when they are standing in front of a room full of children makes the designation of time for staff development difficult.
But now, new demands on teachers are making the need for more and better ongoing training sorely felt. Here are just a few of the factors that are adding to those demands and putting additional pressure on the existing school day:
* Societal changes. Schools need additional time to meet the increasing challenges placed on them by a society that is experiencing profound shifts in the workplace and within the family structure. As more women have entered the work force and single-parent families have become commonplace, many schools are feeling the need to open their doors earlier and stay open later.
* Expanding curriculum. The basic amount of knowledge that students are expected to master has increased exponentially. There are more years of history to teach, more works of literature to read, and more mathematical theories to understand. What’s more, the curriculum has grown over the years to include nonacademic subjects such as sex education and driver’s education. Not only is the amount of information greater, but the kinds of skills that a well-educated grauate is expected to possess—such as computer literacy and higher-order math skills—have also changed and increased over time. Indeed, the ever-expanding nature of the “shopping mall” high school, as many have come to call it, has led to a push to streamline and rethink the curriculum to emphasize a “less is more” approach, a curriculum in which fewer subjects would be taught but in greater depth.
* New methods. Changing pedagogical strategies requires a lot from teachers, as well. Not only is time needed to learn the new skills, but the techniques themselves also require more time to execute than those they replace. Planning lessons that actively engage children and teach problem-solving skills takes longer than preparing a lecture. Similarly, portfolio assessments are considerably more time-consuming to conduct than standardized tests that can be scored by a computer.
* Reform. The reform movement itself is part of the problem. While prior efforts emphasized mandates from on high, the collaborative nature of the current restructuring movement requires much greater levels of participation from both teachers and administrators. Schools that have implemented shared decision-making councils, for example, now require the time of many teachers, rather than just one principal, in policy matters.
Ironically, the more a school is engaged in reform, Watts of the NEA observes, the more time becomes a problem for teachers, many of whom devote long unpaid hours to sustain restructuring efforts. “They’re trying to maintain System A while they’re inventing System B,” he says, “and they’re doing System B on their own backs.”
As the recent RAND Corp. report Time for Reform notes, “Unlike retail stores that display notices in the window proclaiming themselves closed for inventory, repairs, or remodeling, schools must continue to provide services for their customers.” Indeed, such noted educational scholars as John Goodlad have frequently suggested employing teachers year-round—not to be with students but to engage in continued professional development and planning.
But while educators and policy-makers may agree that schools cannot do all that is expected of them within the current structure of the school day, there is a wide range of opinions about how to respond to the problem. Some advocate extending the length of the school day or year; others think a greater emphasis should be placed on making more effective use of existing time.
In a widely cited 1990 cover story in The Atlantic, Michael Barrett, a Massachusetts state senator who is also a member of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, made his case for lengthening the school calendar by citing the superior performance on standardized tests by students in countries with longer school years, such as Japan (240 days), then-West Germany (226 to 240 days), and Israel (216 days). “The United States faces a time-in-school deficit every bit as serious as the trade deficit and the balance-of-payments problem,” he wrote. “Each year, American children receive hundreds of hours less school than many of their European or Asian mates, and the resulting harm promises to be cumulative and lasting.”
To back up his hypothesis, Barrett cited the data of such researchers as Herbert Walberg, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In a comprehensive review of more than 100 studies of time and learning published since A Nation at Risk, Walberg found that increased classroom and homework time was correlated with moderate gains in academic achievement.
But others say international comparisons are deceptive. A 1987 report of the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement, for ex- ample, concluded that the length of the school year was unrelated to levels of achievement among 20 countries participating in an international math study. While Japan ranked first and the United States placed 14th in achievement, the United States actually devoted more school hours to math instruction—an average of 144 each year—than did Japan, with 101 annually. In addition, 11 of the 13 other nations that ranked higher than the United States also allotted less curricular time to math.
“Without other kinds of reform, the longer school year does not guarantee greater quality time on task,” argues Curtis McKnight, a professor of mathematics at the University of Oklahoma at Norman and co-author of the 1987 study. “The solution is not that simple. I think it has a lot more to do with how we use the time than how much time we have.” Detractors of the comparisons of the United States and Japan also say they fail to take into account the impact of widespread ability grouping in the United States. In Japan, these people note, classes are largely untracked, and students spend many hours outside of school studying at private cram schools. They also charge that such theories fail to explain why students in countries with shorter school years, such as Belgium, still outperform the United States.
Although Barrett acknowledges the need for changes in both the quality and quantity of instruction, he strongly believes that lengthening the school year is still necessary. He pictures an extended year as a “big tent,” a larger superstructure within which schools could have greater scheduling flexibility. “A number of things may go into the tent to make it a better place,” he wrote in The Atlantic. “To accommodate them all and to arrange them in proper order requires the space the tent provides.”
In any case, because of the tremendous barrier posed by cost, the arguments for and against extending the school year may be moot. Time is money, as the cliche goes, and the adage is particularly true for schools. Schools, after all, tend to be more personnel-intensive than other institutions. On average, 85 percent of a district’s budget is devoted to staff salaries. Using an estimate of $27.45 for daily per-pupil costs, lengthening the school year to 210 days could cost an additional $33 billion a year, the NEA figures. Total government spending on precollegiate public education is estimated to be $252 billion a year, so that action alone would require a 13 percent increase in education spending at a time when many states are cutting school aid.
Such cost barriers notwithstanding, a few states have already moved to increase the length of the school year. A reform bill enacted last year in Oregon, for example, included a plan to lengthen the school year to 220 days by the year 2010. With Oregon schools currently facing a major budget crunch, however, the fate of the plan remains unclear. Recent proposals to lengthen the school year by 20 days in Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, and North Carolina have also been shelved because of a lack of funding.
More modest proposals have fared somewhat better. In 1991, Kansas passed legislation in- creasing the school year incrementally to reach 186 days by 1995, and Minnesota plans to add two days each year beginning in 1994-95 to reach 190 days.
Although the total length of the school year is likely to remain the same for now, an increasing number of schools are changing how they use their existing time and space. As Watts of the NEA puts it, schools are “moving away from cells and bells.”
One approach gaining in popularity is year-round schooling, which is often confused with extended-year schooling. The overwhelming majority of year-round schools still use a 180-day calendar but divide it into different segments, usually with the end result being that the long summer vacation is eliminated. Slightly more than 2,000 public schools now use such an approach. Of those, only 21 also employ an extended-year schedule, defined as 205 or more days of instructional time.
The bulk of year-round programs were initiated because schools lacked the facilities needed to accommodate increasing enrollment, says Charles Ballinger, executive director of the National Association for YearRound Education. In the districts that implemented “multitrack” year-round education, such as Los Angeles and San Diego, the student body is divided into several groups. Each group attends school for 180 days a year, but not all groups are on campus at the same time.
But recently, Ballinger says, more schools have adopted year-round schedules as a way to curtail the “drop-off” in learning that occurs when students are out of school for a long stretch of time. The North Rock Creek, Okla., district converted its elementary school to the state’s first year-round program last August, for example, after being convinced of the new calendar’s educational benefits. “A large part of our reasoning was that we wanted to cut down on the length of time these kids had on their own,” says Alisande Porter, president of the district’s board.
As for the extended year, Bal- linger asserts that, until the economy improves, it will remain a local initiative. Still, he contends, longer school years are likely to become a more common feature in schools of the future. “The question,” he says, “is not whether it will happen but when it will happen.”
While a longer school year may still be off on the horizon, some schools are already experimenting with longer days. In Murfreesboro, a city of 50,000 located about 30 miles south of Nashville, the local schools have tossed aside the notion that school must start at 8 or 9 in the morning and end at 3 in the afternoon. Children may spend as many as 12 hours in school as a part of the district’s extended day program.
Parents can drop off their children as early as 6 a.m. at each of Murfreesboro’s eight elementary schools. The youngsters “usually come in half asleep, and we take them into the gym and wake them up,” says Peggy Bell, who directs the extended-day program at Northfield Elementary School, where she also has a full-time job as a guidance counselor.
Looking remarkably exuberant and energetic at this early hour, Bell describes the morning’s activities. Following some vigorous and playful exercise in the gymnasium, the children will head to the cafeteria for breakfast. Afterward, they play with building blocks, draw, or engage in other small-group activities until their regular school day begins at 7:45 a.m.
Later, a significantly larger group—about 280 to 300 students—will participate in the after-school portion of the program. Offerings here and at other schools in the district include hands-on science instruction, homework tutorials, private music lessons, art and foreign language classes, and sports and recreational activities.
Providing these kinds of services for children while their parents are at work should be part of the American education agenda, says John Hodge Jones, superintendent of the Murfreesboro schools and chairman of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning. “We must look at the total needs of children, the needs of the modern home, the needs of our labor force,” he says. About 2,000 children, just under half of the district’s students, elect to participate in the program—a clear indication, Jones says, of the need for schools to offer such a service.
Parents in the community sing its praises. “I’ve been real high on the program,” says local newspaper editor Mike Pirtle, whose 4th grade son is a regular participant. “If we didn’t have this, I don’t know what we would do.” And many students say they enjoy the activities, despite the long hours. Explains Joshua Robinson, a 6th grader at Mitchell-Neilson Elementary School, “It’s better than just being home and watching TV.”
Parents foot the bill for the majority of the program’s costs— about $26 per week per child during the school year and $40 per week for a summer session that runs from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The district is able to offer the program at a relatively low cost primarily because a substantial portion of the staff members are students at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, and they are paid only about $4.35 to $5 an hour. Each of the eight program sites is overseen by an administrator or teacher, who earns an extra $9,000 a year on top of his or her regular salary. The staff is rounded out by fulltime teachers—who take on the additional duties voluntarily for slightly lower pay per hour than they earn in the classroom—and by other licensed teachers who only want to work part time or who are in between jobs.
Another school district that has pioneered an innovative school calendar is the Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista, Calif., just outside San Diego. About 1,379 of the district’s 28,500 students are enrolled in an alternative program in which they attend school for only two hours a day.
The program was created in 1986 to decrease the district’s high dropout rate and, in particular, to target students who had dropped out because of financial problems. It offers both a more personalized atmosphere and a flexible schedule that enables teenagers to work at a job while completing their diplomas. For teenage parents, child care is also available while they are in class.
Students at the center attend school each day—in groups of 20—for two hours, roughly half of which is spent working independently at computers on individualized assignments. Once a week, they meet one on one with their teacher for about an hour. “We’re trying to get to kids before they drop out,” says Tom Williams, the district’s director of alternative programs. “They take the same curriculum, but it’s just delivered in a different way.”
Students take two or three courses of their choice at a time, using as little or as much time as they need to complete them. Many find it easier to focus on completing one course credit every three weeks than to work on six credits simultaneously for a semester.
“You go at your own pace,” remarks Beatriz Cendejas, an 18year-old student who has been enrolled at the Sweetwater center since 1991. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s on you if you want to finish.” Thanks to the program’s flexible schedule, Cendejas is able to spend several hours a day working at the Del Rey infant-care center, which in turn is helping her become better prepared to seek employment as a child-care specialist after she graduates.
The physical layout of the learning centers, with their conference tables and computer stations, looks more like an office than a traditional classroom. All the teachers have telephones at their desks to facilitate communication with both students and parents.
Since the program was instituted seven years ago, the district’s annual dropout rate has declined from 9.9 percent to 4.1 percent. “It seems that most schools are set up to fit students into institutions instead of saying, ‘What do we have to do to meet the needs of kids?’ “ Williams remarks. The success of the learning centers, he maintains, is rooted in their flexibility. “We’ve shown students that schools and teachers can be human.”
A variety of other, less revolutionary, changes in how schools structure their day are under way elsewhere in the country.
The RAND Corp.’s Time for Reform report found that some schools, for example, are “banking” time by starting 10 minutes earlier each day so that, over the course of a month, they can accumulate an extra day for teacher professional development and planning. Others are exploring new avenues for assisting at-risk or other students who need extra time built into the day. Schools in San Diego County set aside time for tutorials rather than pull students out of their regular classes. And Carl Sandburg Intermediate School in Alexandria, Va., a winner of an RJR Nabisco grant, has instituted a two-hour afterschool program three days a week for students who need extra help. Some schools are even offering optional courses—such as computer or foreign-language instruction—before or after school. Still others have chosen to break into the sacred ground of the weekend. Hull High School in Massachusetts conducts a “Saturday School” for freshmen and sophomores in need of additional help.
Even schools that still operate on 8:30-to-3, Monday-through-Friday, 180-day calendars are experimenting within the confines of the traditional school day. Many of the schools involved in the middle grades restructuring movement, for example, have replaced the traditional 40- to 45minute periods with a “block scheduling” format. At C.C. Capshaw Middle School in Santa Fe, N.M., students are assigned to teams, each of which has between five and seven teachers—one in each of the core academic subject areas. Guidance counselors, administrators, and special education or Chapter 1 representatives are also assigned to each team. Teachers on the same team share a common planning period and have control over how to use large blocks of their students’ time each day, allowing them to vary the amount of time devoted to different lessons as needed.
Similar approaches have been used by many schools in the Coalition of Essential Schools, a reform-oriented network begun by Theodore Sizer, a professor of education at Brown University. In his most recent book, Horace’s School, Sizer outlines a master schedule based on his work with the coalition schools. He sets up roughly two-hour blocks for classes and groups students and teachers in “houses.” A rotation plan allows classes to meet at different times of the day; the schedule also incorporates daily planning time for teachers, as well as opportunities for students to perform community service.
But as educational entrepreneurs have sought to reconfigure how the school day is used, their progress has been hindered by an extensive array of state requirements. Twenty-four states, for example, mandate the number of minutes spent on math and science each week in elementary and middle schools. “Realistically, you can say that many of the requirements fly in the face of common sense,” Sizer argues. “Each one of us learns at different rates, and how many minutes doesn’t tell us very much.”
The guiding principle behind such mandates is that schools can achieve educational equity by imposing equal requirements. But a growing number of educators contend that such approaches miss the point and that it’s the actual outcomes of student performance that must be compared.
Likewise, whether a student is 15 or 16 or 19 “is irrelevant” to the issue of what he or she should be studying at any given time, Sizer says. Rather than delineating exactly what courses a student should study at various grade levels or ages, he suggests, schools should concern themselves with defining what a well-educated student should know by the time he or she graduates. “You have to be clear exactly about what you want her to learn,” he says. “It’s much easier to say ‘four years of English’ than to define what English is.”
As schools begin examining how they use time, they are also re-evaluating other aspects of their organization, such as how they use physical space.
The adoption of a “micro-society” curriculum 12 years ago at City Magnet School, the middle school in Lowell, Mass., led to a complete renovation of the facilities. Today, the school has numerous nontraditional spaces—among them a mock courtroom, a bank, a marketplace, and a newspaper office— where students learn about the “real world” by running their own in-house versions of grown-up institutions. The goal of the school, Principal Sue Ellen Hogan says, is for “children to become independent learners, to become more responsible for what they’re doing and more engaged in what they’re doing.”
Instead of the “chalk-talk model” in which the teacher is always the authority, Hogan explains, “the children become authorities or reference points for each other,” and teachers become coaches or facilitators.
“The micro-society schools are one example of how dramatically schools can change on the inside,” observes Peter Samton, a partner in the New York City architectural firm of Gruzan Samton Steinglass. But while a small number of innovative institutions are thriving, Samton cautions, the status quo has remained largely unchanged. “Most architects are not aware of these questions,” he says, “and they are dealing with school boards...that are not willing to put it into concrete yet.” One reason, he notes, is that they have been burned in the past for such reform failures as the open-classroom movement of the 1960s.
A handbook of model designs compiled by the school of architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology notes that the failure of those early open-classroom experiments “has unfortunately resulted in a retrenchment in terms of school design, with schools of the 1980s being constructed in the most traditional of modes.”
In contrast, educators say, the current changes in education are not fleeting fads; they are part of a fundamental evolution that will require changes in how schools are designed. Greater emphasis on collaborative work, for example, means schools need differentiated spaces within classrooms that will allow students to work together without disrupting other small groups. And collaboration among teachers means schools will also have an increasing need for professional work areas outside the classroom.
School space is also being redrawn as the walls and thinking that have defined the traditional school begin to crumble. Many educators now believe that learning need not take place in the school itself.
Education in the future may include such off-campus components as student internships, community-service programs, and instructional segments offered through such institutions as museums and libraries. Technology can also serve as a window on the outside world by connecting students with information and opportunities far from their home communities.
Changes are also afoot in how existing facilities use their physical resources. While few cities can afford to build many new and smaller schools right now, educators have become increasingly concerned that the impersonal nature of large urban schools has caused students to fall through the cracks.
The nation’s largest school system, the nearly one-million-student New York City district, plans to create at least 50 smaller, theme-oriented schools that would provide a “more personalized, caring environment” for students. And efforts to create smaller “schools within schools” are also under way in Philadelphia and Chicago. By creating smaller, autonomous units within existing school buildings, educators hope to create a more cohesive faculty and student body.
Many of the changes currently in vogue in the restructuring movement—such as creating longer blocks of time for classes or sending students out into the community to learn about the real world—are far from new. As early as the turn of the century, educators such as John Dewey were touting many of these ideas.
In The School and Society, first published in 1899, Dewey decries the structure of the “ordinary schoolroom,” with “its rows of ugly desks placed in geometrical order, crowded together so that there be as little moving room as possible, desks almost all of the same size with just space enough to hold books, pencils, and papers.... [I]t is all made ‘for listening.’” Instead, he suggests, classrooms need places for children to work—to “construct, create, and actively inquire.”
Nearly 100 years later, it remains to be seen whether the majority of schools will be able to adopt and sustain significant changes in how they use time and space, given the political and economic climates in which they operate. What is clear is that it will take a long time to rework the deeply rooted structure that characterizes schooling in America.
Vol. 04, Issue 08, Pages 27-43