20 October 2008

Time to Learn

An article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer caught my eye last week. Here is its thesis:
At the end of the school year, students at Garfield High School spend about 23 more hours in each academic class, roughly the equivalent of four more weeks of instruction, than students at Nathan Hale High, according to an analysis done by a parents group in West Seattle. The question is: Does that matter?
Interesting question, don't you think? And not one with a simple answer, as administrators were quick to point out:

"If one school district can do in two hours what it takes another six hours to do, and the students achieve equally well, then you have to ask what difference does it make," [Kathe Taylor] said.

Marni Campbell, principal at Nathan Hale, agrees.

"Raw minutes," she said, "is nowhere near the whole story."

I agree, but is there some way to quantify the time needed for learning?

The state has a 150-hour rule in terms of what qualifies as a full-year course, but schools can seek waivers. When I think about it, 150 hours doesn't sound like a lot, given the volume of curriculum. And how much of that did I "lose" as a teacher to student absences, pep assemblies, state mandated testing, and so forth? Did my upper middle-class kiddos need as much time to learn "biology" as those in a Title I school? If we could identify schools where students needed more time, would we support them with more money to help reach every kid?

I understand the state's need to quantify things. They're ponying up the basic ed dollars and are charged with overseeing that access is equitable for students. However, I wonder if things like the 150-hour rule are what reinforce for some families that seat time is all that matters. I have had any number of students over the years tell me that their mom thinks they should pass the class because they showed up every day---it mattered not if anything was learned.

How do we change the focus of our educational system from seat time to "enough" time to learn?

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