A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Prisoners of Time: Research - September 1994

Chapter Two - Fix the Design Flaw

In Prisoners of Time, the Commission recommends that we "fix the design flaw" in American schools and that "state and local boards work with schools to redesign education so that time becomes a factor supporting learning, not a boundary marking its limits" (NECTL, 1994, p. 31). Fixing the design flaw requires changes in how we organize teaching and learning so that all students are given the time necessary to succeed to high levels, something that is not possible in the existing system.

A story from Greek mythology about a cruel character named Procrustes is a good basis for beginning to understand what the Commission meant by the "design flaw" in schools. According to legend, when travelers sought lodging at Procrustes' house, he would tie them to an iron bed. If they were too tall to fit perfectly in the bed, their limbs would be cut off. If they were too short for the bed, their bodies would be stretched to fit. In Procrustes view, the length of the bed was the important factor and all travelers were required to conform to the bed regardless of their individual physical differences.

The use of time in American schools has been described as a modern-day example of a Procrustean bed. Harold Howe summarizes the view as follows:

Consider what we do to students in school even though we know they are very different from one another when they start school and will become even less alike as they pursue learning. We insist that students achieve their learning in the same amount of time regardless of their differences. Then we tell them that those who succeed in this amount of time are worthy and those who don't are failures (Howe, 1993, p. 135-136).
This chapter will expand on the insights into time use suggested by the myth of the Procrustean bed. It is about the quality of time use in our schools and the conditions that contribute to making the best possible use of the time that is available.

A number of questions will be addressed. What is the design flaw and how serious is it? Do the way schools use time cause them to be inherently inequitable institutions? Why must we re-examine the way schools are structured by grades? What are some of the teaching practices in American schools that contribute to the negative effects of the design flaw?

In reviewing the research related to these questions, it is important to note that when the design flaw is discussed, it is in reference to restructuring schools for student learning. It is about using the resources, including time, that are currently available to schools in more rational and productive ways.

What Is the Design Flaw and How Serious Is It?

At the heart of the design flaw is the conflict between our current uses of time and our desire for successful learning by all students. The way time is used in schools may be the most significant structural barrier to student learning.

Schools place children in grades by age and give each one the same amount of time to learn the subjects before them. Like uniform and standard pieces of raw material in a factory assembly line, students are "batch processed." First they are "sorted" by age and then they are moved through the educational system in periods of equal time.

Yet, we know that the amount of learning that takes place in a given period of time varies dramatically with individual students (Walberg, 1988). Because they have different learning styles, different aptitudes, and differing levels of motivation, students learn at different rates. Figures vary, but most show some students may need between three and six times more time to learn than others.

Studies also indicate that differences in required learning time increase as slower students progress through the curriculum. One researcher notes:

A student who begins a learning sequence by performing poorly on the first step performs even more poorly on the second step because he lacks some of the prerequisites. Without extra time to restudy these prerequisites, he misses more prerequisites at each successive step, becoming progressively farther behind. So the academically rich get richer and the academically poor get poorer (Arlin, 1984, p. 67).
On the opposite end of the educational spectrum are those children who seem to learn most quickly, the students many schools label "gifted and talented." Those students also suffer when they are "batch-processed," since they grow easily bored when their abilities are not challenged.

Accommodations for gifted and talented students seem the exception rather than the rule in American schools. Research has found that "the large majority of gifted students across this nation spend all but two or three hours per week in regular classrooms" and that only minor modifications are made to meet their needs (Archambault et al., 1991, p. 1-2). A study of third and fourth grade classrooms found that 84 percent of the activities in which gifted and talented students participated were the same as those for children of other ability levels (Westberg et al., 1991, p. 19).

More than 30 years ago, John Carroll developed a model that has provided the foundation for much of the research and thinking about time for learning (Carroll, 1989, pp. 26-31). He noted that "the learner will succeed in learning a given task to the extent that he spends the amount of time that he needs to learn the task" (Carroll, 1963, p. 725). Carroll described "the very great variation that exists in the amounts of time that children need for learning" and the fact that schools "may allow less than adequate time for learning any task" (Carroll, 1963, p. 727).

Carroll found that "teachers and instructional programs vary in the amount of time they allow for learning" (Carroll, 1963, p. 727). He noted the following:

Some programs present material at such a rapid pace that most students are kept under continual pressure; only the apter students can keep up with this instruction, while the others fall back or out, sometimes never to get caught up. In other programs, the instruction is paced for the benefit of the slower student...many fast learners lose some of their motivation for learning when they feel that their time is being wasted or when they are not kept at the edge of challenge (Carroll, 1963, pp. 727-728).
Schools will have a design flaw as long as their organization is based on the assumption that all students can learn on the same schedule. The challenge is to devise structures in schools that provide instruction geared to student differences and permit students to learn at their own rates. Students who need more time to learn would receive it, while those that require the challenge of a fast-paced curriculum would be encouraged to move forward.

What kinds of organization should schools consider? One is the creation of non-graded schools, which is discussed in some detail later in this chapter. In non-graded schools, children are taught the curriculum based on their previous achievement levels and readiness for the task at hand rather than being grouped on the basis of their chronological age.

Another option is "continuous progress learning," where students of the same age, but different abilities, are placed in a classroom. Students work individually or in small groups through sequential learning modules geared to their cognitive level. When they complete a unit and are ready to move on, they do so.

Is the design flaw serious? If we are unwilling to accept the fact that schools are structured in ways that insure failure of significant numbers of children, the design flaw is serious. If we are concerned that many of our most gifted students are not challenged, it is serious. If we want to continue to pay for the results of educational failure, whether it be in the high rates of remedial courses offered by our high schools and colleges, or by the high rate of incarceration in prison by our high school dropouts, it is serious.

Do the Way Schools Use Time Cause Them to be Inherently Inequitable Institutions?

Providing equal amounts of time to groups of students who need different amounts of time to learn raises a question about the inherent equity of the current educational system (NECTL, 1993, p. 18). If we provide all students with the same amount of instructional time, we virtually guarantee inequality of achievement (NECTL, 1993, p. 17).

In many respects, disadvantaged or slow learners suffer most, since, if they begin school at a deficit and are unable to master their initial lessons, they tend to fall further and further behind with each successive step. If they do not get the extra time and attention they need to learn, they perform poorly on achievement tests, thereby further jeopardizing their opportunities. The students who exhibit the lowest achievement scores are more frequently poor and/or minority, the groups in our society whose numbers are increasing most dramatically.

The solution to the equity question is paradoxical. In order to get equality of student achievement, we need to provide them with appropriate, and therefore unequal time and opportunities to learn (Carroll, 1989, p. 30). As one author phrased it, "Where ability is concerned, equality consists of providing equally well for all kinds and levels of individual differences" (Passow, 1955, p. 55).

Do the way schools use time cause them to be inherently inequitable institutions? Webster's dictionary defines equity as "a free and reasonable conformity to accepted standards of natural right, law, and justice without prejudice, favoritism, or fraud and without rigor entailing unique hardship" (Webster's Third New International Dictionary, 1986, p. 769).

Are schools conforming to accepted standards of "natural right, law, and justice" when they give all children the same amount of time to learn, when we know that a large percentage of those children require more time to learn? Is an institution that structures itself so that a predictable number of the individuals it serves will fail, acting "without prejudice or favoritism"? If the answer to these questions is "no," then schools, as currently structured, are inherently inequitable institutions.

Why Must We Re-examine the Way Schools Are Organized by Grades?

In the majority of schools throughout the country, students are placed in grades according to their age. Slotting students into predetermined grade levels based on the criterion of age assumes students can all be treated uniformly and their individual differences neatly packaged to fit a preexisting structural design.

The idea of rigidly segregating students into grades by age has been challenged from a variety of perspectives. Goodlad and Anderson note: "Evidence from ethnology, anthropology, and educational history and research indicates that age segregation, which is in effect what graded classrooms provide, is neither necessary or natural... age segregation... appears to have far more negative than positive consequences" (Goodlad & Anderson, 1987, p. xxiii).

The idea of organizing students into grades did not take hold in the United States until the mid-1800s. Prior to then, it was not unusual to see students of different ages in the same classroom. One author noted that the graded structure "runs counter to the pattern of upbringing of the young which previously existed for millions of years" (Pratt, 1993, p. 17).

In its study of time and learning, the Commission concluded that the grade structure found in most of our schools is central to the design flaw. The Commission stated: "Fixing the design flaw means that grouping children by age should become a thing of the past. It makes no more sense to put a computer literate second-grader in Introduction to Computers than it does to place a recent Hispanic immigrant in Introductory Spanish. Both should be placed at their level of accomplishment" (NECTL, 1994, p. 31).

On what basis did the Commission make this recommendation? What does the research say? Two prominent researchers found "an overwhelming preponderance of evidence to support non gradedness in all of its dimensions". They conclude: "There is simply no research that says graded structure is desirable, or, for that matter, that single-age class groupings and/or self-contained classrooms are to be preferred" (Goodlad & Anderson, 1987, p. xxviii).

Anderson and Pavan (1993) provide more detail about studies that have compared the effectiveness of graded and non graded structures. They found the following:

If a school were to move to a non graded organizational structure, what would it look like? A non graded structure is described as follows:

In non graded schools where students of similar levels of accomplishment are grouped together for purposes of instruction on a particular topic, teachers can be relieved somewhat of the burden of trying to teach students with a wide variety of abilities within one classroom. Currently, in our graded schools, there is great variation in the levels of achievement by students in a particular grade. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found, for example, that "there are 4th graders... who do as well in mathematics as half of 8th graders, and about a fifth of 12th graders" (Educational Testing Service, 1993, pp. 5-6). Based on this finding, "the term 'grade level' is meaningless in the United States, for it tells little about what students know and can do" (Educational Testing Service, 1993, p. 5).

When students are grouped by level of achievement rather than by age and grade, teachers can spend more time delivering instruction to their classes at a pace that is appropriate for all. Furthermore, teachers can reduce the amount of unproductive independent "seat work" they assign, a practice often unavoidable in classrooms with multiple ability groups, since the teacher cannot work with more than one group at a time (Gutierrez & Slavin, 1992, p. 34).

The primary reason to move from a graded to a non graded structure is for improved learning. Non graded schools provide a structure for children to move through the curriculum at their highest level of capacity. The non graded structure also permits more time for students who are at developmentally different levels and eliminates the diminished self-esteem that results for students who are retained because they have "failed" a grade.

What Are Some of the Teaching Practices in American Schools that Contribute to the Negative Effects of the Design Flaw in Schools?

Teachers' instructional methods and classroom management techniques determine how productively learning time is used; that is how much teaching and learning actually occurs in the minutes and hours devoted to the process. It has been demonstrated that some teaching strategies promote more concentrated, efficient learning than do others. This section will summarize the research on five areas: (1) seat work, (2) classroom organization and management practices, (3) rote learning, (4) quality and rigor of textbooks, and (5) uses of technology.

Seat Work

Research has consistently found student learning to be enhanced by direct instruction from teachers, as opposed to extensive reliance on individual "seat work" and writing assignments (Gutierrez & Slavin, 1992, p. 34). Classrooms in which students spend long hours on written assignments or silent reading, with little direct input from teachers, are frequently associated with low achievement gains (Walberg, 1991, p. 27).

While the amount of time spent in seat work obviously varies depending on the teacher and the level, there is no doubt that American schools spend a great deal of "instructional time" in this manner. For example, one study of fourth grade mathematics classrooms found that students spent 47 percent of their time alone doing seat work (Walberg, 1991, p. 27). Another study found that students in the reading classes examined spent 66 percent of their time doing seat work while those in the mathematics classes studied spent 75 percent (Rosenshine, 1980, p. 32).

These figures provide a rather disturbing comparison with those from Asian classrooms where students receive much more direct instruction and consistently out-perform their American peers on international tests of academic accomplishment. One study that compared similar groups of students in China, Japan, and the United States found large differences between the three countries. In China, teachers were found to be leaders of the child's activities 90 percent of the time, as opposed to 74 percent of the time in Japan, and only 46 percent of the time in the United States (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992, p. 24).

The problem with seat work is that active engagement in the learning process declines dramatically when students are left alone and asked to complete often mundane, repetitive assignments. While performing seat work, they are less inclined to process actively new material. As a result, learning engagement rates--or "time on task"--are likely to decline considerably, resulting in substantial learning losses (Walberg, 1991, p. 32).

Classroom Organization and Management Practices

In this country, schools often permit behaviors that reduce meaningful learning, such as student tardiness, student disruptions, classroom interruptions, assemblies, lack of routine and rules, classes that do not start on time, excessive and redundant testing (Karweit, 1987, p. 26), allowing students to take lengthy breaks between activities, diverging from the focus of discussions, and asking students to wait while their peers finish assignments (Gaskins, 1988, p. 30). It is not surprising to find that, holding demographic characteristics constant, schools that make better use of in-class time regularly post strong student test scores (Walberg, 1991, p. 27). These students engage in a higher proportion of on-task behavior and interactive instructional time, and teachers in the schools are rated well on clarity of presentations, classroom order, and the effectiveness of their classroom processes.

In what has become the classic study of time on task (Rosenshine, 1980, p. 180), investigators reported that about 60 percent of the school day for second- and fifth-graders was allocated to the study of academic subjects (reading, mathematics, science, and social studies). The researchers also determined the amount of time students in academic classes are actually engaged in learning. They found that second grade students spend an average of about 1 hour and 30 minutes actively engaged in studying academic subjects while fifth grade students spend an average of 1 hour and 55 minutes actively engaged.

A study of elementary school learning time found that (1) waiting occupied 20 percent of class time, (2) general management activities engaged 17 percent of valuable time, and (3) other non-instructional activities took 15 percent of time away from academic study--leaving less than half of class time (47 percent) for actual instruction and learning (Walberg, 1991, p. 27).

Teachers can structure learning time through the use of effective classroom organization and behavior management techniques. For instance, they can instruct students in routines that allow them to move smoothly from one learning activity to the next with minimal direction from the teacher and little disruption to the flow of learning (Gareau & Kennedy, 1991; Gaskins, 1988, p. 30). They can prevent student misbehavior by clarifying rules and expectations early, establishing habit-forming routines and procedures, and providing clear feedback about performance and behavior (Evertson & Harris, 1992, p. 29).

Administrators can ban practices that interrupt class time, such as PA system announcements or impromptu assemblies. In addition, students who are habitually late can be required to make up missed class time as a condition of promotion or graduation.

Finally, schools can experiment with innovative organizational procedures such as asking teachers, rather than students, to move from class to class, or allowing teachers to stay with the same group of students for a number of years. One study found that the latter practice eliminates "down time" at the beginning of the school year when teachers are getting to know a new group of students and deducing what they were taught the previous year (Fiske, 1991, p. 17).

These kinds of explicit classroom organization are the norm in Asian classrooms, which tend to be calm and orderly (Peak, 1993; Stevenson & Stigler, 1992, p. 39). During the early months of school, Asian children are "explicitly taught the component skills that are necessary for smooth operation of the classroom," (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992, p. 61) such as how to move from one activity to another, how to arrange the content of their desks, how to pay attention and follow directions, and how to speak loudly and clearly so they will be understood (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992).

As a result, Japanese and Chinese children spend less time out of their seats and talking to their peers at inappropriate moments than do American children. For example, one study found that American fifth graders are out of their seats nearly 20 percent of the time, as compared with 5 percent of the time for Asian children (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992, p. 39).

Rote Learning

A large body of research shows that the content currently taught in many classrooms is boring and repetitive. Too many schools rely heavily on rote memorization or "drill-and-practice" activities rather than higher order thinking exercises to build students' knowledge and skills.

Education researchers have stressed the importance of restructuring academic time so that higher order thinking becomes a part of all levels of the curriculum. The benefits of such a challenging curriculum are well-documented. A study of disadvantaged students in urban, suburban, and rural elementary schools found that instruction that focuses upon critical thinking to reinforce meaning and understanding of new information is more effective at inculcating advanced skills, and at least as effective at teaching basic skills (Knapp, Shields, & Turnbull, 1992, p. 37). Other studies have confirmed that "students who are exposed to academically challenging instruction perform better than students whose instruction focuses on basic skills" (U.S. Department of Education, 1992, p. 39).

Disadvantaged learners are most frequently subjected to rote drill methods. These techniques are particularly prevalent in Chapter 1 classrooms (U.S. Department of Education, 1992, p. 39); researchers note that "most of the supplemental services targeted to [disadvantaged] students (Chapter 1, English-as-a-Second Language services) provide extra practice in basic skills out of context and do not emphasize meaning and understanding" (Knapp et al., 1992, p. 37).

Researchers argue that this conventional approach to teaching disadvantaged and slow learners actually mitigates against academic success (Knapp & Turnbull, 1990, p. 56). The approach tends to break up disciplines such as reading, writing, and arithmetic into fixed sequences of discrete and isolated skills that are taught without any over-arching context. Likewise, schools often require mastery of the most basic skills before students are allowed to tackle more complex curriculum. For instance, children who have not mastered rote spelling exercises are not deemed capable of reading more interesting stories. This pedagogical technique underestimates what even slow learners are capable of accomplishing and postpones more challenging and interesting work for too long. As a result, student enthusiasm for learning is diminished (Knapp & Turnbull, 1990, p. 56).

Mind-numbing drill-and-practice methods are further reinforced by the pressure many American teachers feel to "teach to the test," to concentrate upon teaching only those facts and concepts which appear on state or nationally mandated competency examinations. Since those tests generally emphasize "basics only" knowledge, teachers have little incentive to spend their time on higher-order thinking skills which may only detract from the time students need to learn a large body of isolated facts prescribed by the test-making "authorities" (English, 1987, p. 17). International comparative studies have revealed that the United States tests more frequently than 10 other industrialized countries, thereby helping to drive these ultimately unproductive teaching practices, even though we place less emphasis on their results (Haynes & Chalker, 1992, p. 60).

Research casts doubt upon the effectiveness of drill-and-practice techniques in promoting long-term learning (Walberg, 1988, p. 29). A Johns Hopkins University analysis of 24,000 eighth graders showed that drill exercises negatively affected test scores in all four subject areas where they were used (Epstein & Mac Iver, 1992, p. 38). The same Johns Hopkins study found that even after controlling for students' differing abilities and prior achievements, eighth graders who take more rigorous and demanding algebra courses perform significantly better than do students who take other mathematics courses with less difficult content (Epstein & Mac Iver, 1992, p. 38).

Most memorization is boring and undermines students' natural motivation and enthusiasm for learning. Research shows that students actually lose their motivation to learn when their minds are not actively challenged (Resnick & Klopfer, 1989, p. 58). Many students lack the motivation to progress beyond the most basic levels of a strictly hierarchical curriculum.

By repeatedly exposing our students most at risk of educational failure to an impoverished basics-only curriculum, we may unintentionally be placing a firm ceiling on their educational opportunities (Knapp & Turnbull, 1990, p. 56). Failure to adopt creative teaching techniques and rich context for new knowledge at the lowest educational rungs inherently reinforces the inequalities with which students begin the educational process. This is particularly apparent in the discipline of mathematics, for example, where "previous attempts to provide universal access to [the subject] have resulted in the creation of two forms of mathematics education; one for social and economic elites emphasizing reasoning and rigorous content, and another for the rest of society, emphasizing basic computation" (Silver, 1992, p. 48).

Japanese educators seem to have internalized this lesson. Their curriculum focuses primarily on higher-order thinking skills, rather than the rote teaching of isolated facts (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992, p. 40). Japanese teachers act as "coaches" in the classroom, posing provocative questions and exhorting students to work together to discover solutions. Students must work hard under this form of tutelage, generating multiple approaches to a solution, reworking problems when answers are incorrect, and explaining the rationale behind their methods (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992, p. 40).

It is important to note that the processes of discovery and inquiry do not occur in isolation from content. Rather, facts and information take on meaning and are more likely to be understood and remembered.

Quality and Rigor of Textbooks

The low levels of quality and rigor found in many textbooks exacerbate the design flaw, because the texts are not challenging and are not geared to the learning levels of students. When students at different ability levels are placed in a classroom with a single textbook at what is commonly called "grade level" and the textbook is the primary instructional tool used by the teacher, some students will be lost while others will be bored.

There is substantial evidence that the quality and rigor of textbooks has declined. In a recent review of research on textbooks, Reis and Purcell (1991) point to the following findings from a number of studies:

Stevenson and Stigler's (1992) comparison of Asian and American textbooks point to other related problems for students in this country. They found Asian textbooks to be "slim, inexpensively produced paperbacks," with "few illustrations," and "very little information that is not necessary for the development of the concepts under consideration" (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992, p. 139). Teachers are expected to supplement the key concepts in the textbooks with other information central to the topic under study.

A very different situation was found in American classrooms where textbooks were found to be "thick, hard-covered volumes covering a whole year's work," with "colorful illustrations, photographs, drawings, or figures on each page," and "digressions into historical and biographical material" (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992, p. 139). Stevenson and Stigler point to the negative effects of the textbooks used in the United States:

Daunted by the length of most textbooks and knowing that the children's future teachers will be likely to return to the material, American teachers often omit some topics. Different topics are omitted by different teachers, thereby making it impossible for the children's later teachers to know what has been covered at earlier grades...Asian textbooks, by contrast, are developed on the assumption that knowledge should be cumulative from semester to semester; if the concept or skill is taught well the first time, it is unnecessary at a later grade to repeat the discussion (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992, p. 140).

Use of Technology in Schools

New computer technologies offer a promising vehicle for raising the intellectual level of classroom learning experiences. Computer software allows students to quickly and easily access information, such as news services and scientific databases, thereby expanding their research horizons and improving their analytical and inquiry skills (Honey & Henriques, 1993, p. 44). Computer technology also allows students to communicate with teachers and learners beyond their geographic boundaries. They can share data and research through electronic networks like the "Internet" and contribute to collaborative projects over a modem.

For those times when a student or group of students needs to reinforce understanding of a particular skill, "Computer-assisted instruction" (CAI) can be used on an individualized basis, thus freeing teachers of the necessity and monotony of full-class review sessions on basic skills that may need reinforcement. CAI packages have shown "significant positive effects at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels" (Kulik & Kulik, 1991, p. 44).

Teachers who are using computers in the classroom report that technology energizes and enlivens the learning process and allows them to expect more from their students (Sheingold & Hadley, 1990, p.44). Technology offers a way to differentiate and individualize the pace and content of instruction, so that students with different strengths and weaknesses can receive the kind of education each needs to succeed.

However, as the Commission points out, "technology is a great unrealized hope in education reform" (NECTL, 1994, p. 37). Today, schools use technology in very limited ways, primarily for drill and practice and for teaching computer literacy and programming skills (Sheingold & Tucker, 1990). Barriers to realizing the potential of technology include financial constraints, limits on professional development time for teachers to learn how to use the technologies, and rigid classroom schedules that do not permit students and teachers to use technology in productive ways.

Despite these barriers, the use of technology in schools is growing. In August 1993, more than 5,000 schools had satellite dishes. In 28 states, teachers were found to be using statewide electronic networks to share ideas, discuss issues, and obtain information for improving the quality of their instruction (U.S. Department of Education, 1993).

In the coming years, the challenge will be not only to bring technology to schools, but also to explore ways that it can be used to help students reach the high standards being set for them. Machinery alone will not bring about the changes we seek.

[Chapter One - Reclaim the Academic Day] [Table of Contents] [Chapter Three - Keep Schools Open Longer to Meet the Needs of Children and Communities]