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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Back to School: A Time to Rethink Time

Another year has passed, and schools are still captives of an outdated calendar.
Milton Chen
Senior Fellow, The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Credit: Edutopia

In June 2005, I wrote a column at the start of the summer vacation, describing its roots in our agrarian past, when children were needed to harvest the crops. (Growing one's food can be a powerful educational experience, but that's the topic of my next column.) In it, I referred to a 12-year-old report from the U.S. Department of Education's National Education Commission on Time and Learning, entitled "Prisoners of Time." (The entire document is available online.) The report concluded, "Our schools . . . are captives of the school clock and calendar. We have been asking the impossible of our students, that they learn as much as their foreign peers while spending only half as much time in core academic subjects."

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Another year has passed, and American schools are still captives of an outdated calendar. It's mid-August, and the world of education is awakening from its three-month slumber. The seasons of schooling set the schedules for close to seven million K-12 educators and staff and 55 million students and families. Yet our schools and universities stand alone in hewing to a calendar with a long summer vacation added to holiday and spring breaks. No other sector of our society -- government, business, transportation, health care, manufacturing -- considers its year to be composed of 180 days or 36 weeks.

Add to this "outer limit" the "inner limit" of the 50-minute period of most secondary schools, and we have a pigeonholed system of schooling. This time frame was born out of the Carnegie Unit, which requires 120 hours of class time for high school courses. (Five such periods each week for 31 weeks achieves the 120-hour requirement.) The Carnegie Unit grew out of the early work of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, endowed by industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1906, and surely it's time for education to leave behind a 100-year-old idea.

Simply extending the school day with rote memorization and drill and practice on low-level skills, however, will not increase student learning and may well decrease motivation to learn, and teachers should be paid for working additional time.

Forward-thinking educators are changing this thinking and providing students with a rich array of learning experiences beyond the 180-day, six-hours-per-day limit. Around the nation, a new definition of educator is emerging as schools work in partnership with many community-based groups to extend learning beyond the school clock and the building's walls with noncredentialed instructors.

These informal educators or community educators come from science centers, art museums, boys' and girls' clubs, and many other nonprofit, youth-serving organizations. More importantly, they are increasing not only the time students spend learning but also how they are learning during afternoons, evenings, weekends, and summers.

Here in California, Proposition 49, approved by the voters in 2002, is now making about $550 million available for these after-school partnerships. This amount represents a major infusion of funding for the state's schools, which have declined from their collective status as one of the best school systems in the nation in the 1970s.

There are models to build on, such as the Los Angeles Unified School District's Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, a campus for students in grades preK-12 located in Pacoima. There, principal Yvonne Chan grasped the need to extend the school year from 180 days to 200 days to serve the needs of her students, of whom 97 percent come from low-income families and 78 percent are English-language learners.

Vaughn fills each day with a rich array of after-school learning activities and services, including universal preschool, full-day kindergarten, technology integration, arts classes, service learning, and school-based health and counseling services. Over the course of five years, the average scores of its students on the state Academic Performance Index have risen more than 200 points, from 443 to 672 (in a range of 200 to 1,000).

This fall, a new task force on time, learning, and after-school, on which I've served, organized by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, will issue its report updating and expanding themes from "Prisoners of Time." I hope it will be widely read and will catalyze new thinking about how time is used and learning is viewed. As students head back to school, it's high time to rethink school seasons. Fall should be the time to plant the seeds of learning, and summer should be the time to harvest those crops -- students' minds that have grown and developed over an entire year.

Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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