The Call for a New Learning System: Getting America to Listen Up

Piecemeal reforms miss the big picture -- education in America needs a full redesign.

Piecemeal reforms miss the big picture -- education in America needs a full redesign.

Perhaps, in 2020, a clear-eyed historian will be researching how the United States, spurred on by pressing need, finally began to shift its thinking on public education.

In doing her research, she might well discover a key, transformative document, a report from the Task Force on Time, Learning, and Afterschool titled "A New Day for Learning." The task force, supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, called for nothing less than "a new learning system." (Being a diligent researcher, she might dig farther and see that, 75 years ago, Charles Stewart Mott, a General Motors cofounder, had been interested in a more flexible school calendar to support the schedules of parents working in his factories in Flint, Michigan.)

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The task force consisted of an unusual mix of individuals and organizations, from a school superintendent to a manager of after-school programs, from former U.S. Department of Education officials to the executive director of a foundation started by filmmaker George Lucas. What would such a motley crew of people interested in improving schools have to say to each other? Usually, education discussions are rife with disagreements over turf, money, and politics. Could this group agree on anything?

In fact, the task force immediately found common ground on the promise of after-school programs and those facilitating an extended learning day, which complement school-day learning and more fully meet the needs of the whole student. Its discussions over two years led it to move beyond piecemeal reforms and call for nothing short of a complete redesign of the American educational system, and to unify disparate policies and funding streams for children's education, health, and welfare.

An important piece of the work to be done involves rethinking how time is used for learning, a topic of much coverage on this site. It's 2007, but it might as well be 1907, considering that most American schools still adhere to the venerable agriculturally oriented nine-month school year and to a rigid six-hour day, with the school building shut down during late afternoon, on nights and weekends, and through summers.

The George Lucas Eucation Foundation produced a video on the inspiring work of Marco Torres, a social studies teacher at San Fernando High School, in the Los Angeles Unified School District. One scene showed some of Torres's students sitting in a car across the street from his house, looking at a light source flickering immediately in front of them. They weren't lighting up illegal substances; they were lighting up their minds and pecking away at laptops using their teacher's wireless hub.

Scenes in which students are learning online outside of school buildings -- and outside of school hours -- are now commonplace around the country and the world. Young people are now studying and communicating from their homes in the evenings, from Starbucks on weekends, and in many community-based settings -- from libraries, museums, and nonprofit organizations -- beyond the bell. Many such settings may be housed on school grounds but are not operated by schools, and many of them support and extend the school curriculum. The task force's call to action confirms what any observer can plainly see: We need to rethink how, when, and where students learn.

In an overview video we produced on this topic, we profiled the fast-growing Clark County School District, in Las Vegas. There, a high school had adjusted its hours to last from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. to accommodate students who worked late nights in the city's casinos. Moving the entire school schedule five hours later might seem as difficult as moving a cemetery, but the school district did it to respond to local needs and students' interests.

What's more, it was following in the footsteps of another principal, also based somewhere on the Western frontier, at a time and place in which students also needed to work to support themselves and their families. Read the words of A.H. McDonald, principal of the Sacramento Grammar School, quoted in History of Sacramento County, California:

"In '72 or '73, at the request of many young persons who could not attend the day school, I made application to the Board to establish a public night school. After the subject had been discussed for several evenings, it was decided that if twenty-five persons would apply for such teaching, a class would be formed. Undoubtedly, Superintendent Denson remembers the number who met in the Franklin [school] building upon the night advertised for those who desired to attend to present themselves. Some 250 persons were present.

"The school was organized by myself, and three assistants were furnished by the Board. It entered upon its popularity and usefulness at once, and has been taught every fall and winter since then. It has proved of the greatest importance to many persons, who otherwise would have been deprived of obtaining the elements of an education."

Note to school boards: That was in 1872, not 1972. The decision, according to the account, took only "several evenings."

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

This article originally published on 2/26/2007

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