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Time is of the essence

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August 25, 2010 06:08 pm

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School_ClosedforSummerThere has been much discussion in Washington, as well as in school districts around the nation, about how time can be used to provide expanded learning opportunities for students (especially those who are low-performing and at risk of dropping out).  With a high school dropout rate that should keep all of us up at night and U.S. students underperforming their international counterparts, there is good reason for educators, communities, and policymakers to be thinking about how time is being used (or misused) in schools.

At this point, I am going to resist the urge to discuss at length the agrarian calendar.  Truly, we have heard about U.S. reliance on an outdated agrarian calendar so much this summer that I for one am starting to feel resentful every time I visit the local farmers’ market. Let’s just say the majority of schools in the U.S. follow a calendar that may be in need of revisiting and/or updating.  Right now the traditional U.S. school calendar consists of 180 six-hour days. According to an Education Sector study, this translates to 799 instructional hours. By comparison Finland has 861 hours in their school year; Netherlands, 911; Japan, 926; and Korea tops it with 1,079 instructional hours. It is also worth noting that students in these countries continue to outperform American students on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international assessment of the reading, science, and mathematical literacy of 15-year-old students.

Experts agree that if increased time is going to positively impact achievement it must be time well spent. Simply adding instructional hours that are more of same will not do much. The National Center on Time and Learning has done much to forward the discussion about expanded learning time, but how expanded learning time can make a difference at the high school level is still wide open for discussion.

At the Alliance, we are starting to see some pieces come together. At the high school level, it is as much about expanded learning opportunities as it is expanded time. How can high schools use time to help create a more meaningful, relevant high school experience, especially for those students at risk of dropping out? And how can high schools, desperately trying to give students the skills and knowledge they need to be competitive in the 21st century, move away from the narrowly defined confines of “seat-time” and the Carnegie Unit, which is used as a measure of the amount of time a student has studied a subject?

Just recently the Alliance hosted a group of education innovators–many of whom operate schools that have begun to experiment with how time is used at the high school level.  It was truly exciting to hear about what these passionate educators are doing to expand our traditional concept of high school, while keeping a firm eye on equity and accountability.

There is still much to be researched, discussed, and learned about how time and expanded learning opportunities can help raise high school achievement and lower the national dropout rate, but it is good to know there are networks of innovators out there pushing at the envelope, looking for answers. The Alliance will also be searching for solutions to this issue.  We will be hosting a meeting on how expanded learning opportunities can help better prepare high school students for college and career in the fall and much of our ongoing policy work touches on the issue of time as well.

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