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

Prisoners Of Time - April 1994


Learning in America is a prisoner of time. For the past 150 years, American public schools have held time constant and let learning vary. The rule, only rarely voiced, is simple: learn what you can in the time we make available. It should surprise no one that some bright, hard-working students do reasonably well. Everyone else-from the typical student to the dropout- runs into trouble.

Time is learning's warden. Our time-bound mentality has fooled us all into believing that schools can educate all of the people all of the time in a school year of 180 six-hour days. The consequence of our self-deception has been to ask the impossible of our students. We expect them to learn as much as their counterparts abroad in only half the time.

As Oliver Hazard Perry said in a famous dispatch from the War of 1812: "We have met the enemy and they are [h]ours."

If experience, research, and common sense teach nothing else, they confirm the truism that people learn at different rates, and in different ways with different subjects. But we have put the cart before the horse: our schools and the people involved with them-students, parents, teachers, administrators, and staff-are captives of clock and calendar. The boundaries of student growth are defined by schedules for bells, buses, and vacations instead of standards for students and learning.


The degree to which today's American school is controlled by the dynamics of clock and calendar is surprising, even to people who understand school operations:

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

This state of affairs explains a universal phenomenon during the last quarter of the academic year: as time runs out on them, frustrated teachers face the task of cramming large portions of required material into a fraction of the time intended for it. As time runs out on the teacher, perceptive students are left to wonder about the integrity of an instructional system that behaves, year-in and year-out, as though the last chapters of their textbooks are not important.


Unyielding and relentless, the time available in a uniform six-hour day and a 180-day year is the unacknowledged design flaw in American education. By relying on time as the metric for school organization and curriculum, we have built a learning enterprise on a foundation of sand, on five premises educators know to be false.

The first 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, 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.

These five assumptions are a recipe for a kind of slow-motion social suicide.


In our agrarian and industrial past, when most Americans worked on farms or in factories, society could live with the consequences of time-bound education. Able students usually could do well and accomplish a lot. Most others did enough to get by and enjoyed some modest academic success. Dropouts learned little but could still look forward to productive unskilled and even semi-skilled work. Society can no longer live with these results.

The reality of today's world is that the global economy provides few decent jobs for the poorly educated. Today, a new standard for an educated citizenry is required, a standard suited to the 21st century, not the 19th or the 20th. Americans must be as knowledgeable, competent, and inventive as any people in the world. All of our citizens, not just a few, must be able to think for a living. Indeed, our students should do more than meet the standard; they should set it. The stakes are very high. Our people not only have to survive amidst today's changes, they have to be able to create tomorrow's.

The approach of a new century offers the opportunity to create an education system geared to the demands of a new age and a different world. In the school of the future, learning-in the form of high, measurable standards of student performance-must become the fixed goal. Time must become an adjustable resource.


For the past decade, Americans have mounted a major effort to reform education, an effort that continues today, its energy undiminished. The reform movement has captured the serious attention of the White House, Congress, state capitals and local school boards. It has enjoyed vigorous support from teachers and administrators. It has been applauded by parents, the public, and the business community. It is one of the major issues on the nation's domestic agenda and one of the American people's most pressing concerns.

Today, this reform movement is in the midst of impressive efforts to reach National Education Goals by defining higher standards for content and student achievement and framing new systems of accountability to ensure that schools educate and students learn. These activities are aimed at comprehensive education reform-improving every dimension of schooling so that students leave school equipped to earn a decent living, enjoy the richness of life, and participate responsibly in local and national affairs.

As encouraging as these ambitious goals are, this Commission is convinced that we cannot get there from here with the amount of time now available and the way we now use it. Limited time will frustrate our aspirations. Misuse of time will undermine our best efforts.

Opinion polls indicate that most Americans, and the vast majority of teachers, support higher academic standards. Some, however, fear that rigorous standards might further disadvantage our most vulnerable children. In our current time-bound system, this fear is well founded. Applied inflexibly, high standards could cause great mischief.

But today's practices-different standards for different students and promotion by age and grade according to the calendar-are a hoax, cruel deceptions of both students and society. Time, the missing element in the school reform debate, is also the overlooked solution to the standards problem. Holding all students to the same high standards means that some students will need more time, just as some may require less. Standards are then not a barrier to success but a mark of accomplishment. Used wisely and well, time can be the academic equalizer.


The federal government, concerned about student achievement in the United States, directed this Commission to conduct a comprehensive examination of the broad relationship between time and learning. Time is not a new issue in the education debate, but an age-old concern. As our work progressed, we realized that a report published precisely a century ago is painfully relevant to our inquiry.

In 1894, U. S. Commissioner of Education William T. Harris argued in his annual report that it was a great mistake to abandon the custom of keeping urban schools open nearly the entire year. He complained of a "distinct loss this year, the average number of days of school having been reduced from 193.5 to 191," and wrote:

[T]he constant tendency [has been] toward a reduction of time. First, the Saturday morning session was discontinued; then the summer vacations were lengthened; the morning sessions were shortened; the afternoon sessions were curtailed; new holidays were introduced; provisions were made for a single session on stormy days, and for closing the schools to allow teachers...to attend teachers' institutes...

The boy of today must attend school 11.1 years in order to receive as much instruction, quantitatively, as the boy of fifty years ago received in 8 years... It is scarcely necessary to look further than this for the explanation for the greater amount of work accomplished...in the German and French than in the American schools...

Published 100 years ago, that document could have been issued last week.


What lies before the American people-nothing short of reinventing the American school-will require unprecedented effort. This report concludes with several recommendations about time. The simple truth, however, is that none of them will make much difference unless there is a transformation in attitudes about education.

The transformation we seek requires a widespread conviction in our society that learning matters. Learning matters, not simply because it leads to better jobs or produces national wealth, but because it enriches the human spirit and advances social health.

The human ability to learn and grow is the cornerstone of a civil and humane society. Until our nation embraces the importance of education as an investment in our common future-the foundation of domestic tranquility and the cure for our growing anxiety about the civility of this society-nothing will really change.

Certainly nothing will change as long as education remains a convenient whipping boy camouflaging larger failures of national will and shortcomings in public and private leadership.

As a people, we are obsessed with international economic comparisons. We fail to acknowledge that a nation's economic power often depends on the strength of its education system. Parents, grandparents, employers-even children-understand and believe in the power of learning. The strongest message this Commission can send to the American people is that education must become a new national obsession, as powerful as sports and entertainment, if we are to avoid a spiral of economic and social decline.

But if this transformation requires unprecedented national effort, it does not require unprecedented thinking about school operations. Common sense suffices: American students must have more time for learning. The six-hour, 180-day school year should be relegated to museums, an exhibit from our education past. Both learners and teachers need more time-not to do more of the same, but to use all time in new, different, and better ways. The key to liberating learning lies in unlocking time.

Letter of Transmittal Table of Contents National Education Goals

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