Schools: It's About Time

January 16, 1994|By DENIS P. DOYLE

For the past 150 years, American public schools have held time constant and let learning vary. The lives of students -- and teachers -- are dominated by the clock and the calendar. The rule, though rarely spoken, is simple: Learn what you can in the time available. It's hardly surprising that kids who are bright and hard-working (and linear learners) do well; everyone else tails off, from the less successful to the dropout.

While everyone knows that it takes time to learn, no one supposes that we all learn the same amount in a fixed time period. Each of us learns at different rates at different times in our lives, whether it's games or academics.

How did schools -- which are devoted to learning -- get it wrong? The secret of mass education is batch processing. In the days of royal tutors -- when Aristotle taught Alexander -- students moved at their own pace. But in a class of 30 to 40 kids, everyone moves at some mythical "everyman's" pace. Administrative convenience made time the constant, learning the variable.

Once upon a time society could absorb the damage done by this device; the able student went on to great and wonderful accomplishment, the less able joined the ranks of skilled workers, the dropout wielded a pick and shovel. No longer.

The hard reality of the modern, global economy is that there are virtually no jobs left for the uneducated. We simply cannot afford to leave anyone behind.

Everyone has to be held to a high standard, and everyone must meet it. The idea is not so far-fetched as it might at first seem. Today, nearly everyone possesses a driver's license; yet in the early days of the automobile era, Germany's Daimler-Benz predicted that the worldwide market for cars would never exceed one million units -- the number of people sufficiently competent to be trained as chauffeurs.

Closer to home, there are now 45 million personal computers in use in America, yet the PC was only introduced 11 years ago. And most PC users are self-taught, flagrantly disregarding the clock and calendar as they learned to use their computers.

Although the school year -- now typically 180 days in America (compared to 220 in France, 243 in Japan) -- has gradually lengthened since the early 19th century, the pattern has been consistent. The year's length (and the spacing of vacations) marched to the drumbeat of the agricultural calendar. The cycle of preparing the soil, planting, cultivating and harvesting were the events that determined when youngsters attended school.

At the time of the founding, when 95 percent of all Americans lived on the land, that pattern made sense. As a living anachronism it made some sense at the beginning of the 20th century, when 45 percent of us lived on the land. But today fewer than 2 percent of Americans live on farms -- and many of them derive most of their income from non-farm sources.

But there is a logic to time and learning that does make sense. And that is to reverse the old equation. Make time the variable, learning the constant. Work at it until you get it. That's what we do outside of school, whether it's learning to drive a car, operate a computer, ice skate, speak a second language or play bridge.

What would this mean for schools? First, they would stop grouping kids by age (the first misconception of the importance of time) and group them by skill and knowledge (not ability or talent, but what they know and are able to do).

Then students should move through a solid core curriculum and be advanced as they master the material. No mastery, no diploma. Indeed, the whole curriculum should be "backward mapped," from graduation requirements to kindergarten, and students should work through the curriculum a step at a time.

Eventually, this must lead to a longer school day and a longer school year. Learning doesn't stop and start with seasons or time of day; and time is too important to let young people fritter it away in idleness and boredom. In particular, youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds suffer from "summer learning loss."

Finally, there is the question of cost. Won't it be more expensive to lengthen the day and year? It depends what you measure. If we're still measuring time rather than performance, it will cost more. By definition.

But suppose we measure performance. How much does it cost to earn a diploma? That's the real question. And that's where the real payoff is. Educated adults earn significantly more than the uneducated. As Harvard's Derek Bok said, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

Denis Doyle is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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