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Reimagining Our Schools 1.3

Deciding how and when we re-open our K-12 public schools is a tricky enterprise. At the same time it is an opportunity to rethink, reimagine, how and what we do. It’s a time to be creative with some innovative solutions that benefit America’s school age children and come closer to assuring them the education kids deserve.

It’s a time to consider “why.” Why do we do things the way we do? Based on that discovery, it’s then appropriate to make some adjustments.

In my recent series of posts under the title of “Reimagining our Schools” I’ve touched on the importance of hearing student perspectives as part of our decision making processes. I’ve shined a light on our current practices of grading and reporting. Last week, I reflected on the need for a hybrid instructional model that best takes advantage of technology-based remote learning and in-person learning. In each of these articles, I am simply trying to provoke thought, to poke the bear a little, with the hope of compelling school and district leaders to take a new look at current practices with an eye toward both efficiency and efficacy. I’m also hoping that the resulting local conversations and actions might propel our public education system fully into serving 21st century learners. (One can always hope.)

This week I want to focus on that finite commodity that we frequently complain there’s too little of… Time.

One of the big reasons we feel like there is too little time is that we squander the ways we invest it. I touched on that briefly in my May 25 post, citing the amount of class time we have kids sitting in passive activities instead of using that time more effectively. I have to ask myself “why?” Why do we continue to waste (there, I said it) so much time? I can only conclude that a major reason is tradition. Rather than re-think how we invest time, we stay with the status quo. Here are some examples.

Consider the academic calendar used in the vast majority of school systems in our country. Nine months, five days per week, designated for learning. All students are on campus at the same time. Then, summers off. Three consecutive months of vacation. This has been our instructional routine since 1900. By 1900 this schedule was adopted in both rural and urban systems in America. Why this arrangement? Dating back to 18th century England, schools operated this way to serve the needs of children and their parents in a predominantly agricultural economy. As we moved toward compulsory education for American kids, the decision to allow students to be out of school during the harvest season made reasonable sense. But, 120 years later? Agriculture is no longer the primary economic engine of this country. So, why is this still a nearly sacred practice? We even have concerns that this continued practice may be doing harm, that the extended vacation period causes meaningful learning loss for some children. Yet, we plow ahead. Blindly.

This opportunity of reimagining our schools should include a reassessment of our instructional calendar. I believe that truly modern public school systems should utilize more efficient and flexible ways to organize time for learning. I advocate the 45/15 model: 45 school days of instruction (basically nine weeks), followed by 15 days (three weeks) of a break. It’s predictable for families. It reduces the opportunity of learning loss. It may afford opportunities for targeted interventions by claiming one of the three “vacation” weeks and using it for a variety of intersessions. In addition to interventions, these intersessions could be effective for touring, outdoor school, community service, enrichment, field experiences; a virtually endless list of opportunities without disrupting instructional time.

Here’s another example of how school systems need to rethink issues of time. Pediatricians, psychologists and other child development experts have advised educators that as kids grow, their sleep patterns and needs change, as does their cognitive acuity at certain periods in the day. Specifically, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that the school day for middle school and high school students should start at 8:30 AM or later to give kids the opportunity to get the amount of sleep they require. But, what do we continue to do? We expect our older students, particularly those in high school, to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to do their best work, as early as 7:30 AM, with 7:40 or 7:45 start times very common. These are the same students who may have been doing homework until 11:00 PM or later, and have to be at their bus stop at 6:10 AM in order to meet their schedule.

Why do we devise a system that harms kids? Excuses/reasons are abundant: the transportation system requires it, in order for athletic practices to occur in daylight hours, we need to dismiss school by 2:30 PM . . . on and on. Really? We can do better. And, if we operate within a “kids first” culture, we must do better.

My final example in this rant on the education system’s misuse of time is this: time cannot be used as a variable to determine academic adequacy or proficiency. The number of minutes that a student spends engaging with the content of a given subject tells us nothing about what the student knows or understands. However, it should be no surprise that public education systems do just that. We have a preoccupation, and an accountability reporting mandate, that focusses squarely on the issue of time. In the state I reside in, administrative rules require district superintends to report to the state annually regarding the satisfaction of these minimum time requirements:

  • Grades K-8: 900 hours of instruction per year,

  • Grades 9-11: 990 hours of instruction per year,

  • Grade 12: 966 hours of instruction.

Okay, I get it. The state needs to make sure that kids attend school. But, those time-focused administrative rules make no mention of how these hours of instruction should be spent. I, for one, am more interested in quality over quantity.

Once kids are in high school, graduation depends on their accumulation of “credits.” States may vary in their requirements but in my state, the magic number is a minimum of 24 credits earned in discreet curricular categories. To receive a credit, students must satisfy two requirements:

  • Receive a passing letter grade,

  • Spend approximately 135 hours engaged with the subject matter.

The validity and reliability of letter grades is a conversation for another day. (See my May 18 post on grading and reporting.) But, the time requirement is an antiquated expectation. Who can assure that 135 hours (8100 minutes) is the sweet spot? What if a student can satisfy the learning standards and receive a stellar grade in half of that amount of time? Do we hold her hostage to this time requirement? Conversely, what if a student requires additional time to fully meet the expected standards in order to “pass” the course? Do we declare “time’s up” and pull the plug on his learning? The answer to each of the scenarios should be the same. No, of course not. Not in a system that is truly student-centered and values quality over quantity.

We have an opportunity, and I would suggest a responsibility, to reflect, and to have some honest discourse, regarding time. I am convinced that this precious commodity must be organized differently, and be allocated with greater flexibility and efficacy, in the reimagined design of 21st century schools that serve the needs of 21st century learners: proving each one the education kids deserve.

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