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COVID-19 Reminds Me of 1994 Report, ‘Prisoners of Time'

As much as schools have adapted to COVID-19, their underlying one-schedule-fits-all educational model remains the same. A 1994 report, and several recent examples, hint at what could be changed for the better.

We’ve all experienced COVID-related events and circumstances we never predicted. We’ve had to change everything, and the stresses and strains are not over yet. Parents and students have a very understandable and very intense desire to go back to their pre-COVID education system. They miss their friends, their sports, their activities. But most don’t miss their industrial-model schools. We can’t go back and we shouldn’t go back (at least not for very long), because now is the opportunity to do schools, and education, better. The best way to improve our schools is to change how we use time and how we think about time in our schools.

There seems to be an ever-present urge to find, and follow or adopt, the latest education trend or book or thought leader or institute. Every conference unveils the latest and greatest education innovation, and as many have said, the field of education is awash in fads. Some of us duck them, stay under the radar and wait for the silliest of edu-speak fads to pass.

Rather than submit a new idea, I suggest that we already have enough data to know what’s wrong, and we know what we need to do to improve a fundamental flaw in our education system.

We need to start by re-reading (or reading for the first time) Prisoners of Time, the 1994 report from the National Education Commission on Time and Learning, reprinted by the Education Commission of the States in 2005.

Against a background of solid data showing many students are behind in basic subjects, and many high school graduates feel unprepared for college and the world of work (and college professors and employers agree), here are a few excerpts and key points from the report to get you worked up:

  • Despite so many changes in students’ lives — think social media, self-driving cars, online shopping, smartphones — most schools still operate with the same traditional classroom settings, 50-minute classes, 180-day school years, letter grades and age-based grade levels.

  • Most schools still run a time-based education system, and there are better ways to use students’ time.

  • The flaw in the system: “American public schools have held time constant and let learning vary. The rule, only rarely voiced, is simple: learn what you can in the time we make available.”

  • “Our time-bound mentality has fooled us all into believing that schools can educate all of the people all of the time in a school year of 180 six-hour days.”

  • “People learn at different rates, and in different ways with different subjects.”

  • “No matter how complex or simple the school subject—literature, shop, physics, gym, or algebra—the schedule assigns each an impartial national average of 51 minutes per class period, no matter how well or poorly students comprehend the material.”

  • “Secondary school graduation requirements are universally based on seat time.”

  • “Unyielding and relentless, the time available in a uniform six-hour day and a 180-day year is the unacknowledged design flaw in American education. By relying on time as the metric for school organization and curriculum, we have built a learning enterprise on a foundation of sand, on five premises educators know to be false.”

And I’ve only gotten to page six. Read the report!

I’ll be writing more about this in the months to come, but there is hope. Many schools have already abandoned factory models where time was the constant and learning was the variable. They’ve moved to systems where learning is the constant and time is the variable. They meet the students where they are. They are student-paced.

Check out Westminster Public Schools in Colorado, or the Lindsay Unified School District in California. Find out about the work of the Aurora Institute, KnowledgeWorks and CompetencyWorks. Check out the Mastery Transcript Consortium’s new approach to recording a student’s academic progress and achievements without time-based measurement or letter grades.

Remember that yesterday’s schools don’t meet the needs of today’s students and won’t prepare them for their future of exponential change and constant learning.

Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.