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

Prisoners Of Time - April 1994


As various panaceas have been advanced in the last decade to solve the problems of learning in America, education reform has moved in fits and starts. Indeed, as different helmsmen have seized the wheel, the ship of education reform has gone round in circles. If we have learned anything from these efforts, it is that no single solution exists for the problems of American schools.

Reform can only succeed if it is broad and comprehensive, attacking many problems simultaneously. In that effort, high standards and time are more than simply additional oars in the water. With standards as our compass, time can be the rudder of reform.

In our judgment, educators have created a false dilemma in debating whether additional instructional time can be found within the confines of the current day and calendar, or needs to be sought by extending both. False dilemmas produce bad choices. To meet new demands, the United States needs both-the best use of available time and more time.


We offer eight recommendations to put time at the top of the nation's 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.


"Time is money," runs an old adage. There is no doubt that the recommendations we have advanced will cost money. We suggest it will be money well spent. In fact, a leading economist suggests that when we consider the costs of day care, the effects of summer learning loss, and the ultimate benefits of increased learning time, we can view any initial costs for such time as an investment with more promising payoffs then most other uses of tax dollars. Where are the funds to come from in a period in which the federal domestic budget is frozen for the next several years, state revenues and outlays are under pressure, and local taxpayers resist higher taxes? The picture in public finance is not optimistic.

But neither is it a disaster. The United States is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. American schools are already handsomely supported by international standards. In constant, inflation-adjusted dollars, real spending on education in America increased 200 percent between 1959 and 1989-90.

We are convinced the American people will support these recommendations if they believe high quality education will accompany the changes and if educators bring common sense and ingenuity to the table.

The Commission believes priorities need to be set in education funding: all current expenditures should be reallocated to support the academic activities of the school. Education dollars should be spent on academics first and foremost. Budgets should distinguish between education and non-education activities.

At the same time, extending the envelope of the school day and year opens up the possibility of using funds in different ways. Federal compensatory funds, as we have suggested, can be employed to extend the school day and provide summer opportunities for those who require more time. Extended-day and other community services can be supported by other units of state and local government. Moreover, the costs of extended services can be partially met by modest fees, based on parental ability to pay. And costs can be controlled by carefully phasing in new services, using student-teachers and noncertified personnel, and making greater use of full-time staff on flexible schedules.

It should be noted that across the United States the ratio of adults to enrolled students exceeds one to ten, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. ("Adults" includes district staff, school administrators, teachers, instructional aides, guidance counselors, librarians and support staff.) Surely it is possible to restructure adult use of time so that more teachers and administrators actually encounter students on a daily basis in the classroom, face to face. This does not require additional money.

Throughout this document, the Commission has asked the question: Is there a better way? As these models demonstrate, visionary school leaders in districts of all kinds-large and small, wealthy and poor, urban and rural-are already supporting many of the reforms we advocate. These districts are financing the kinds of changes needed today to anticipate the challenges the future will place before us.

Several things are clear from these models. Many different alternative calendars do exist, most attuned to local needs. Parental choice is a significant feature of most of these models. Fees for additional services are charged in many of these alternatives. Above all, communities of all kinds face a powerful, pent-up demand for new and different educational services.

In the final analysis, the true costs depend on what we think is important. If we value learning, the cost of "doing it right the first time" is less than the expense involved in "doing it wrong" and having to do it over again. As the American business community now understands full well, in the end quality costs less.


Eleven years ago, a small booklet, A Nation at Risk, launched one of the great reform movements in American public life. It changed the terms of the education debate by urging education leaders to look beyond the details of schooling to three big issues: time, content, and expectations.

The response was dramatic and sustained. Expectations for student performance have been raised markedly-the public expects more, and so, too, do teachers and principals. Content standards are in the midst of drastic revision that holds out the promise of a world-class education for all.

But learning remains a prisoner of time. The description of the problem contained in A Nation at Risk is still true: "Compared to other nations, American students spend less time on school work; and time spent in the classroom and on homework is often used ineffectively." For practical people, reforming expectations and content were thought to be easier problems to solve; time, a more difficult issue to tackle. But in terms of learning, time as an elastic resource is the main road to excellence.

Americans can justifiably take pride in all they have accomplished and are trying to accomplish through their schools. We have built a remarkable system of public education through twelfth grade, universally available to all. We have provided access to postsecondary education at levels matched by no other nation. We have led the world in attending to the needs of the disadvantaged, the dispossessed, and the disabled. We are in the midst of the longest, sustained education reform movement since the common school was created in the 19th century.

Today a new challenge beckons: we must face the test of time. "Time," said Aeschylus 25 centuries ago, "teaches all things." Now at last we must learn its lesson about education: American students will have their best chance at success when they are no longer serving time, but when time is serving them.

Lessons from Abroad Table of Contents Reinvent Schools around Learning, Not Time.

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