Serving time in Maryland schools

June 01, 1994

"Prisoners of Time" is the title of a major report issued last month by the National Education Commission on Time and Learning. "Unyielding and relentless, the time available in a uniform six-hour day and a 180-day school year is the unacknowledged design flaw in American education," says the report. Americans believe, it says, that their students can learn as much as their counterparts abroad in only half the time. And the "boundaries of student growth are defined by schedules for bells, buses and vacations instead of standards for students and learning."

How ironic that the report was issued the very week that Maryland teachers were complaining to reporters that the extension of the school day to "make up" for the days lost in last winter's storms was causing unbearable stress! "Everyone is exhausted," said the president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, which is starting school 30 minutes earlier and ending school 15 minutes later. "I look at it as punishment," said a Baltimore County science teacher.

It's tempting to chorus, "Poor things!" but before we do, a few statistics from "Prisoners of Time" and other sources: Japanese and German students have a formidable learning advantage over Americans in large part because they spend much more time on core academic subjects (including two or more foreign languages), complemented by impressive out-of-school learning. Two-thirds of all Tokyo students, for example, attend jukus -- private tutorial services that enrich instruction.

Japanese teachers also generally deal with more students than American counterparts, but they teach fewer classes. The typical class has between 35 and 40 students, compared with 23 in the U.S.

The U.S. actually ranks near the top in international comparisons of time spent per day in school, but much of it is spent in study halls, pep rallies, driver education, useless "home room" periods and the like. And foreign students fritter away less time at home in front of television sets.

The challenge, then, is to use school time better, to let time serve students instead of forcing them to serve time. When the state Board of Education required schools to "make up" the lost time, some of them intelligently rearranged schedules, realizing that the time would be wasted if not used for instruction. Others simply tacked on the extra minutes, as though imposing a sentence. The science teacher quoted above is one of those who finds himself in prison.

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