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Turn The School Clock Off and Trash the Academic Calendar: Replace Time with Performance for Measuring Academic Progress
Public schools proclaim their mission is academic performance, but they seem far less concerned about student learning and far more obsessed with time, all the time. Whether a student is in or out of school, it is time, not knowledge and skill gained, that counts. If clocks and calendars ever stop, so perhaps will schools. It would be nice if wasted time was of equal concern. Mandated school enrollment for a child is specified as a point in time, years following date of birth. The age at which one is absolved from attending secondary school is, again, fixed by time, ranging from 16 to 18. The length of the school year is inscribed statutorily in time. The length of the school day and the length of various required classes during the school day are fixed by time. Activities such as lunch, recess, and PE are specified as numbers of minutes or hours. Student disciplinary suspensions and expulsions are defined by time out of school. Course requirements are typically expressed as a number of required years or semesters in school. Secondary school graduation is defined as having spent a minimum amount of time in school. A school employee’s workday and year is specified in terms of time. When asked if they can speak French, or any other language, many students and adults avoid the question by saying, “I studied French for two, three, or four years.” Only those who actually know and can speak French are predisposed to give a more direct answer. This concern for calendars and clocks made sense in a bygone era. In agricultural societies, the rhythm of life is linked to hours of daylight, growing conditions, and seasons of the year. Such is seldom still true in modern America. Few of us are now engaged in agriculture or food gathering. Artificial light and controlled temperatures are everywhere. Our modern lives are more shaped by work expectations, social exchanges, recreational opportunities, and biological clocks than by calendars or chronometers. The problem with time as a measure of academic progress or school success is that it is a grossly imprecise indicator. It correlates only slightly with academic performance. It is better suited to determining degrees of incarceration than graduation degrees. Some children read at age three and, all other things being equal, might well benefit from formal instruction sooner than kindergarten. Males, generally, develop more slowly and sometimes should start school later. Similarly, staying in high school until an arbitrary calendar threshold, such as age 18, conveys no guarantee of learning. All that can be said positively for a chronologically extended end-point to compulsory schooling is that it restricts workforce entry and constrains labor pool size. Conversely, it possibly effects someone negatively that would otherwise benefit more from being employed than from being compelled to attend school. Can schools escape the clock? Yes! And some already are, at least partially doing so. Several states have enacted financial incentives to induce high schools students to complete required studies in three, rather than four years, and allocate some state school support savings toward an early graduates’ college tuition. Also, increasing numbers of advanced high school students are simultaneously enrolled in undergraduate college courses and a local high school. These alternatives go a long way to making the last year of high school valuable instead of a stream of meaningless elective courses and senior parties while waiting for the more serious work of college. These and similar policy experiments are hopeful, but insufficient. Here are examples of why matters must move more toward performance and away from time. If Johnny has completed the third grade, a measure of time, and cannot read, a measure of performance, then his fourth grade and many grades thereafter may be a waste of his and his teachers’ time. If Johnny cannot read by the end of the third grade, something has gone wrong. Up to this point one learns to read. Thereafter, one reads to learn. A set of early warning performance indicators throughout grades K, 1, and 2 should signal a possible problem. Regardless of the buildup, if Johnny cannot read at the end of the third grade, it is time to stop the clock and undertake a slate of significant interventions, e.g., tutoring, summer school, and parental engagement. If Susie completes high school, and, like most of her peers, aspires to go on, she likely believes she is prepared for college. After all, she spent twelve years attending school. Many Susies are surprised to learn upon entering college that they have large remedial and academic gaps that must be remediated before engaging fully in college level work. If Susie had been required to take end of course and high school exit exams that were aligned with postsecondary admission standards, she would have had better insight on her readiness for college. She might have saved added tuition money and valuable time. Presently, high school diplomas reveal little, other than having spent time in school. High school exit exams, linked to college placement, would be more telling. For those not immediately interested in college, moving to certificates of technical proficiency, rather than generic diplomas, would attest to high school and community college graduates’ knowledge and skill, and would signal important information to potential employees. A credential oriented, rather than a calendar centered, academy wherein students’ bar-coded diplomas attested to levels of knowledge and technical proficiency could easily replace time as measures of success. With burgeoning policy alternatives such as Internet access to knowledge, dual enrollments between high school and college, and state financial rewards for early high school completion, student lives would be furthered, employer interests would be more precisely served, schooling would derive more meaning and consequence for students and their parents, and society would save more money and obtain a better return on its investment. After all, it is about time.
Dr. Guthrie is the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Nevada and is a professor at the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Before joining the Bush Institute, Dr. Guthrie served as director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt University and dean of the School of Education at the University of California at Berkeley.
Dr. Guthrie earned a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and a doctorate from Stanford University.