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

Prisoners of Time - Schools and Programs Making Time Work - September 1994

Introduction - Fixing the Design Flaw


On May 5, 1994 the National Education Commission on Time and Learning issued the results of its two-year investigation, a report entitled Prisoners Of Time. "Learning in America is a prisoner of time," said the Commission, arguing that the time available "in a uniform six-hour day and a 180-day year is the unacknowledged design flaw in American education."

To fix the design flaw, the Commission proposed buttressing the sweeping reform agenda established by Congress and the Clinton Administration in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act legislation by having schools remain open longer while adjusting time to help individual students meet high standards.

Prisoners of Time was issued after 24 months of study that included visits to 19 schools, testimony from more than 150 teachers, administrators, parents, students, and experts, and two fact-finding trips to schools and research institutes in Germany and Japan.

Control by the Clock and the Calendar

The Commission pointed out that the clock and calendar control American education to a surprising degree -- schools typically open and close at the same time each day; class periods average 51 minutes nationally, no matter how complex the subject or how well-prepared the student; schools devote about 5.6 hours a day for 180 days to instruction of all kinds, and they award high school diplomas on the basis of Carnegie units, or "seat time."

"The results are predictable," the report said. The school clock governs how families organize their lives, how administrators oversee their schools ... how teachers work their way through the curriculum ... how material is presented to students and the opportunity they have to comprehend and master it.

"Despite the obsession with time, little attention is paid to how it is used," the Commission said. In 42 states, it noted, "only 41 percent of secondary school time must be spent on core academic subjects."

According to the report, longer school days and school years overseas, combined with better use of time, mean that "French, German, and Japanese students receive more than twice as much core academic instruction as American students.... American students cannot learn as much as their foreign peers in half the time," the report concluded.

Time is "the missing element in the school reform debate," said the Commission, and the overlooked solution to the academic standards problem. "Used wisely and well, time can be the academic equalizer."


To help all students master high standards, the Commission proposed eight recommendations to put time at the top of the nation's education reform agenda:

I. Reinvent schools around learning, not time.

II. Fix the design flaw: Use time in new and better ways.

III. Establish an academic day.

IV. Keep schools open longer to meet the needs of children and communities.

V. Give teachers the time they need.

VI. Invest in technology.

VII. Develop local action plans to transform schools.

VIII. Share the responsibility: Finger pointing and evasion must end.

The Commission pointed to "five premises educators know to be false" as a "foundation of sand" for learning in the United States:

The first premise "is the assumption that students arrive at school ready to learn in the same way, on the same schedule, all in rhythm with each other.

"The second is the notion that academic time can be used for nonacademic purposes with no effect on learning.

"Next is the pretense that because yesterday's calendar was good enough for us, it should be good enough for our children -- despite major changes in the larger society.

"Fourth is the myth that schools can be transformed without giving teachers the time they need to retool themselves and reorganize their work."

"Finally," said the Commission, "we find a new fiction: It is reasonable to expect world-class academic performance from our students within the time-bound system that is already failing them."

Acknowledging that its recommendations might cost money, the Commission insisted its proposals can be financed if "educators bring common sense and ingenuity to the table."

The Commission called for setting priorities in education funding, seeking financial support from other units of government for extended-day services, and establishing fee schedules, based on ability to pay, for additional services.

New Approaches

Against the backdrop of that report, the Commission asked its staff to prepare a supplementary document describing how selected schools experiment with time, schedules, and calendars. The Commission hoped that publication of these examples would provide the public with information on how real schools in real communities have organized themselves to use time in new and innovative ways. This document is that supplementary report.

The programs described in this document have been gathered from several sources:

This report includes 40 brief program descriptions -- 15 elementary schools, 15 middle and senior high schools, 4 district-wide efforts, and 6 special programs, primarily summer camps or university-sponsored efforts to apply new technologies to the teaching and learning process. These examples include public and private schools in urban, suburban, and rural areas from every region of the nation and represent 26 states in all -- stretching from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, and from Long Island Sound to Puget Sound.

This report is intended to be illustrative and suggestive. It makes no effort to provide comprehensive coverage of every program experimenting with alternative calendars, or to provide elaborate descriptions of the models included. In illustrating what is possible and suggesting different approaches, the report does three things.

Diverse and Creative

First, it indicates that many different kinds of schools and districts, in many different communities with diverse student populations, are already implementing many of the recommendations of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning (see Table 1). Based on the material provided by these programs, the Commission staff concludes that the majority of these schools and districts are already engaged in efforts to implement four or more of the Commission's eight major recommendations. A handful appear to have made solid progress on all eight recommendations, and a few have concentrated on a limited number of the recommendations.

Second, these models suggest remarkable creativity on the part of school personnel in reconceptualizing the use of school time. Of the models included in this report, the most common approaches in descending order are (1) redesigning available time; (2) employing technology; (3) extending the school day or year; (4) providing time for professional development; and (5) providing support services for children or families (see Table 2).

One school (Davis Elementary, Gresham, Oregon) has done something as simple as providing mathematics instruction during recesses, lunch-time, and vacations (Recess Math). Others (e.g., Beacon High School, Oakland, California; Brooks Global Studies Magnet School, Greensboro, North Carolina; the Cornerstone Schools, Detroit, Michigan; and New Stanley Elementary, Kansas City, Kansas) have extended the school year by 10, 20, even 60 days -- although all students do not attend for the entire extended time.

Yet others (e.g., Ponderosa Elementary School, Sunnyvale, California and North Branch High School, North Branch, Minnesota) provide optional additional time for some students -- summer school for students experiencing difficulty or optional additional school quarters for students wishing to complete their studies early.

Different Approaches for Different Levels of Schooling

Third, these models indicate that approaches to redesigning time-usage in schools differ by school level, that is, elementary, middle, and secondary school. Table 2 is instructive. It not only classifies the 30 school-based programs in terms of their major program emphases, but also displays major program emphases by school level. Based on this small, nonrepresentative sample of schools, it appears clear that approaches to nontraditional schedules differ markedly between elementary schools, on the one hand, and middle and secondary schools on the other.

At both school levels, providing time for professional development is a major consideration. Approaches to providing this time vary: Beacon Day School in Oakland California rotates every staff member periodically for professional development by using full-time "flex" teachers who substitute for regular classroom teachers. Fairdale High School, Fairdale, Kentucky, is organized around "collaborative learning communities" that encourage five to seven teachers to join together in planning for and assessing the needs of up to 150 students. At Hefferan Elementary School, Chicago, Illinois, teachers receive a full day, every week, for in-service training, planning, or attending workshops.

Although redesigned time usage appears to be the favored approach for all schools, it is the least popular approach at the elementary level. Only 2 of the 15 elementary school programs explicitly mention redesigning time -- and in both of these institutions (Ashley River Elementary and Beacon Day School), the redesign of time involves ungraded classrooms.

At the middle and secondary levels, however, redesigning available time is by far the most popular approach, and strategies to accomplish that goal vary widely. Sir Francis Drake High School, San Anselmo, California, combines block scheduling with an additional 17 days of school. Salt Lake City Community High School in Utah is an alternative high school operating through several "satellite" campuses that permit students to take classes when and where they need them, including evening classes. Independence High School, Columbus, Ohio, employs variations on a common theme: instead of asking students to attend six different classes every day for 180 days, this school breaks down the year into quarters and encourages students to attend fewer classes, in two- or even four-hour sessions, in each of the quarters.

Finally, different approaches to support services deserve attention. Social services, health care screening, recreation, and developmental child care are much more likely to be mentioned as central aspects of school strategies at the elementary level than the middle or high school years. Schools such as Bowling Park Elementary, Norfolk, Virginia, are likely to offer an extensive array of such services to their students. Only Salt Lake City Community High School explicitly mentions support services in its materials -- and these services appear to be more attuned to the needs of the students' children rather than to the students attending the high school.

Costs and Results

Several generalizations can safely be made about the costs and effectiveness of these programs. First, cost data on most of these programs are not available. The more ambitious the program, the more it costs. Some schools and districts have kept expenses to a minimum by forming partnerships with foundations, corporations, and other units of government, and turning to parents to help defray costs for additional services. In fact, such creative approaches often mean that school districts have mounted extensive efforts at no additional cost to the general taxpayer.

Second, there are few formal evaluations. Those that exist might not stand up to professional peer-scrutiny. Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence of the value of these programs indicates that the benefits of these programs are considerable.

Costs. All of these programs cost something, at least initially. A modest-sized school district, enrolling perhaps 10,000 students at an expenditure of $6,000 per student begins each school year with about $60 million in its budget and close to 1,000 teachers and other professional staff on its payroll. Hypothetically, such a district has a great deal of flexibility within the constraints of its current budget and personnel ceilings to redesign time usage.

But what is possible in theory is very difficult in practice. Students are already in class. They arrive every day. They have to be served. The community is familiar with the current school, its offerings and operations, and its schedule. At a bare minimum, a major time-redesign effort requires freeing up teachers, principals, school district administrators, and curriculum and learning specialists to plan and implement new approaches -- and to make sure that all of the myriad details that go into managing a complex school district are taken into account.

Most of the school-specific approaches described in this document -- but by no means all -- required initial outside support. Most appear to have planned and implemented their changes with the assistance of foundations or other outside support. The RJR Nabisco Foundation provided critical seed capital for several of the school efforts described here -- including Davis Elementary, Gresham, Oregon; New Stanley Elementary, Kansas City, Kansas; Carl Sandburg Intermediate School, Alexandria, Virginia; Sir Francis Drake High School, San Anselmo, California; and Piscataquis Community High School, Guilford, Maine.

Others drew on the results of major investments in reinventing schools -- and time usage within schools -- already made by significant national reform networks. Singly, or in combination, the Accelerated Schools Program, the Coalition for Essential Schools, Schools for the 21st Century, the New American Schools Development Corporation, and the School Development Program provided design assistance worth millions of dollars to such diverse schools as Bowling Park Elementary, Norfolk, Virginia; Hansberry Academy, Bronx, New York; John Muir Elementary, Seattle, Washington; Accelerated Learning Laboratory, Worcester, Massachusetts; and Fairdale High School, Fairdale, Kentucky.

Some schools sought other sources of funds. Hefferan Elementary in Chicago turned to Turner Construction Company, Rush University Medical Center, and the Ameritech Foundation for assistance. Charter Oak School in West Hartford sought and received assistance from the Kellogg Foundation. The Cornerstone Schools in Detroit took advantage of assistance from the Genesis Foundation and created a Partnership program that recruited 250 community leaders each contributing $2,000 to support the school.

A handful of the examples described in this document appear to have creatively used their existing budgets or the entrepreneurship of individual teachers or administrators. Murfreesboro City Schools, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, are committed to extended-day and extended-year programs, particularly before- and after-school programs. The district absorbed the planning costs and implemented the programs at no cost to district taxpayers through creative use of existing federal and state funds, and graduated fees, based on ability to pay, charged to parents.

North Branch High School, North Branch, Minnesota, explicitly noted in its planning documents that by the time a full four-year cycle of high school students had made its way through the new calendar, the costs would be identical to current costs. Sahuarita Elementary School, Sahuarita, Arizona, took advantage of the talents of 800 retirees in the Computer Club of Green Valley to equip the school with computers and provide at least one hour's instruction weekly in computer skills.

Evaluation. Very few of these programs provide evaluations of their effectiveness. Some, like Ashley River Elementary, Charleston, North Carolina; Davis Elementary, Gresham, Oregon; James Foshay Middle School, Los Angeles, California; Parry McCluer High School, Buena Vista, Virginia; and Ponderosa Elementary, Sunnyvale, California, point out that their students perform at or above national, state, and local levels on tests such as the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills.

Others measure progress in non-academic terms, though they clearly note the importance of student achievement. Beacon Day School, Oakland, California, seems to consider the satisfaction of parents and students the best evidence of its effectiveness. Charter Oak Elementary, West Hartford, Connecticut, is more concerned with violence and drug usage as a justification for its efforts than achievement gains. And many schools -- such as the Hansberry Academy, Bronx, New York; Accelerated Learning Laboratory, Worcester, Massachusetts; and North Branch High School, North Branch, Minnesota -- are barely up and running, too recently engaged with the changes they contemplate to have any results to show.

A few of the programs do, in fact, offer impressive evidence - - if not always iron-clad evaluations -- of the value of their new approaches. An evaluation team from Loyola University in Chicago has examined the 210-day global studies program of Brooks Global Studies Year-Round Magnet, Greensboro, North Carolina, and concluded that in both the first and second years of operation extended-year kindergarten students clearly outperformed a matching group of traditional-year students in reading and general knowledge -- although few differences could be found in vocabulary or mathematics. When foundation funding ran out for the extended-day and year program at New Stanley Elementary School, Kansas City, Kansas, the school district picked up the extra costs of maintaining the program and announced plans to extend the concept to additional schools.

Likewise, Park View Optional Year-Round School, Mooresville, North Carolina, which provides parents with a choice between a 180-day program and a year-round calendar (45 days in school alternating with 15 days off), found that only one-third of parents initially opted for the year-round program, but the total today reaches two-thirds. Murfreesboro City Schools report a similar phenomenon. When the school district announced that one elementary school would be open from 6:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. with parents paying for the extended-day services, four students showed up. Within two years, public demand forced the extension of the concept to every elementary school in the city. This year, 50 percent of the city's 5,000 elementary school students can be found in the program on any given day, all on a voluntary basis on the part of parents.

Although formal evaluations, particularly evaluations of student achievement, are highly valuable, school responsiveness to community needs and parental satisfaction with school offerings may be crucial evaluation criteria that schools need to meet. The 40 models described in these pages indicate that many schools in the United States are responding to the challenge contained in the final paragraph of Prisoners of Time -- and many more can.

"Today," said the Commission, "a new challenge beckons: We must face the test of time ... American students will have their best chance at success when they are no longer serving time, but time is serving them."

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