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

The Uses of Time for Teaching and Learning - October 1996

VI. Implications for Policy and Practice
Regarding Education Reform

In this report, we have described and analyzed 14 schools and programs that have adopted innovative approaches to the uses of time for teaching and learning. In our analyses, our enthusiasm for what some of the sites have accomplished and our more tepid reactions to others have no doubt shown through. Taken together, the sites raise critical issues and suggest important implications for future policy and practice. Furthermore, despite the somewhat off-beat organizing constructs of the study (quantity and quality of time in school and out), the themes that have emerged from cross-site analysis are highly synchronous with current policy debates. They are also in concert with the conclusions that other researchers are reaching, although their starting points are quite different from ours.

We organize this chapter around four important policy themes: (1) school size; (2) flexibility; (3)choices; and (4) learning time beyond the classroom. We begin our discussion with a core premise that reflects the realities of the mid-1990s:

The American public and its political leaders are unlikely to support the large infusion of resources that would be needed to significantly increase required time in school for all students.

This conclusion leaves us undismayed since much change and improvement can be made with good ideas, the rechanneling of existing resources, and modest amounts of additional resources.

The Size Issue

Several of the schools that we studied were very small--under 100 students. Others were larger but, as part of their original designs or current restructuring plans, have organized faculty and students into small, stable "family" units for teaching, learning, counseling, and nurturing. A majority of the schools attributed a large part of their success with students to keeping classes small. Size--with the emphasis on reducing it--was very definitely a quality of time theme among this quite disparate set of schools. It is a theme that we did not choose as a site selection variable because we did not anticipate its prominence as a reform strategy. This fact increases the power of our observation: we did not look for places that sought to improve the quality of time in school by reducing and personalizing the scale of daily interactions, but we found them nevertheless.

We know that the impetus to reduce scale and create groupings that might truly grow into learning communities is not restricted to the sites in our study. Darling-Hammond and her colleagues at the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST) have been conducting and will shortly report on a study that they call "Big School, Small School." This study specifically examines the benefits to teachers and students of smaller educational units. We ourselves have been involved with an evaluation of clusters of feeder schools that have undertaken restructuring as a dropout prevention measure. A key strategy in the large urban schools (particularly at the middle and high school levels) has been the creation of "pods," "houses," and "families"--physical and educational spaces that keep four or five teachers and 100-125 students together for two years or more (Hershey, Adelman, and Murray, 1995)). Schools affiliated with the Coalition of Essential Schools and the network of middle schools that have been implementing recommendations of the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development represent hundreds of other sites where reducing the size of educational settings is actively promoted as a reform strategy.

Why is smallness considered a virtue? The schools in our study that value it enough to make trade-offs to preserve it would argue that small communities of learners are the only way to put muscle behind the often-articulated goal of holding all students to high standards and expectations. Large institutions have a hard time making students believe this assertion. There is too much daily evidence suggesting otherwise, and the controlling structures that keep anarchy at bay also tend to depersonalize any ringing statements of goals and expectations into so many words. In smaller institutions, or large ones that have subdivided, there is far more opportunity for the adults to reiterate the institutional expectations regularly, to understand what it will take for everyone to meet them, and to provide instruction, encouragement, support, tough love, or whatever else is needed to get them there.

Jane Rollins Martin (1995) has argued that the "moral equivalent of home" is precisely the dimension that is needed in today's schools to make them responsive to current social conditions. She writes: "... there is now a great domestic vacuum in the lives of children from all walks of life. In light of this radical change in conditions, once again the pressing question has become, 'What radical change in schools will suffice?'" We suspect that the appeal of smallness at this particular juncture represents both recognition of the point Martin makes and an answer to her question.


So far, and to the extent that there is one, the movement toward smallness has been a matter of school-level policy or decision making. No state or district that we are aware of has yet mandated that all schools--or all schools over a certain size--must break themselves down into smaller units. However, the public schools in our sample have distinctly benefited from a policy trend at the federal, state, and district levels to allow more flexibility at the school level. Whether the term used is waivers, devolution, or site-based management, the overall effect has been to allow the schools to make decisions, within certain limits, about how they will organize, what they will teach, how they will teach it, and--most important from our point of view, how they will structure time. The private schools, of course, already had decision making authority over these kinds of matters.

When states first made waivers available several years ago, they often complained that no one was taking advantage of this opportunity, leading some to believe that policy flexibility was not really an urgently needed component of educational reform. Others wisely argued, however, that districts and schools would need time to determine where they wanted to go and which rules and regulations were in their way. Our evidence, while limited to a few locations, is that districts and schools figured it out and today enjoy far greater latitude to design and implement their own improvement plans within certain accountability guidelines.

Our greatest interest in flexibility for this study was at the school level and specifically in the context of building-level freedom to arrange and rearrange time to fit the learning needs defined by the faculty. We found that in almost all of the sites, flexibility was both an organizational principle and a fact of daily life that both teachers and students appreciated. Teachers, in particular, were articulate about the ways in which instructional flexibility coupled with flexible time use has enhanced professional collaboration and supported creative teaching practices. But the outcome data that alternative high school programs like Metro in Cedar Rapids and ConCurrent Options in New York City were able to provide are strong indicators that flexibility in when students attend school is a critical need for many in this age group.

While we found the policy trend toward school-level flexibility, management, and decision making to be a largely positive development for most of our public school sites, our sample did include one school where a new, district flexibility policy had an ironic effect. The Alternative Middle Years (AMY) program in Philadelphia has had a 25-year history of site-based management, interrupted briefly at one point by a back-to-basics initiative. Shortly before we visited this school, the district introduced a site-based management program requiring schools that wished to operate in this way to submit a plan for review by district and union officials. AMY, with its long and successful experience of school-level decision making, was initially turned down for reasons that indicated misunderstanding of its institutional mission and history as a citywide magnet program. This is policy run amok. If the school--with its special philosophy, structures, and curriculum--had not been succeeding, it would not have lasted as long as it has. In this case, the waiver policy itself should have been waived.


We have studiously avoided a direct discussion of choice and the magnitude of its effects on outcomes, preferring to save our comments on the choice phenomenon for this discussion of policy and practice. The fact is that our entire sample--not just the private schools--is heavily biased toward sites where students, families, and teachers deliberately choose to be.

The only examples that we have of true catchment area schools that have experimented with the time-related innovations that were our focus are the two extended-year schools in New Orleans, Wheeler Elementary School in Louisville, and to some extent, Hollibrook Elementary School in the Houston area. As we have documented, the New Orleans experiment failed, primarily because quality of time innovations did not accompany the increase in quantity of time. Wheeler must be counted a success story, although it was not battling the same odds with respect to student outcomes as most of the other schools in the sample--whether private or public. Hollibrook is essentially a neighborhood school, but in its pre-restructuring phase, families often abandoned it for other schools with better records of student success. In other words, they chose with their feet.

The most important fact about school choice that emerges from our study is that it exists and appears to be flourishing. We can also assert that it is providing options for some students who are economically and educationally disadvantaged. Finally, choice operates in different ways among the sites, particularly in terms of who does the choosing.

The publicly-funded high school alternatives among the sites--Metro and the Beaver Island Lighthouse School--work exclusively with students who have been rejected by mainstream high schools. As second chance (or perhaps last chance) programs, these schools and the students they serve essentially choose each other. Beaver Island actively recruits students from among the dropout population. Metro is well-known in its district, and most disaffected youth who want to continue their education gravitate to it. (A few students, placed at Metro as a condition of parole or a drug treatment program, do not technically "choose" the school for themselves.) Both of these schools appear to be able to accommodate all interested students. For them, there is no issue of selection criteria, rejections, waiting lists, and so on.

When it comes to the three public, middle school magnets in our sample, students and families do all of the choosing. None of these schools apply selection criteria to the applications they receive. Timilty and AMY typically have more applicants each year than they can enroll. They address this issue through a lottery for the available slots; students whose numbers are too high are placed on a waiting list. So far, Chiron has been able to take all applicants.

With the private schools, establishing the relationship between students and families and the school involves many choices and decision points for all parties. The schools use recruitment, application, and selection processes that variously involve written applications, testing, interviews, and, in two cases, trial residential experiences where school and prospective student can evaluate the fit between institutional ethos and individual preferences.

At every step of the application and admission process to the private schools, families and students must choose whether or not to proceed. All of the private schools in our study are seeking low income, minority students with no major academic weaknesses and no record of difficult behavior in school. One might assume that it takes little thought to decide to accept an invitation to attend, virtually tuition free, a school with a rigorous academic program and a nearly watertight guarantee of moving on to the next level of education if you do you part. That is not necessarily the case, however. Many recruits are apprehensive about the restrictions, rules, regulations, and high standards that the schools apply. When living at school is an issue, many families do not want to send their children away. The result of what is really a rather lengthy choice process is a fairly good match between the private schools and students who will benefit from what they have to offer.

Some observers would argue that the fact that choice is an enrollment variable in so many of our sites has bearing on what we have reported about student outcomes. In general, research has not yet figured out how to best measure the impacts of choosing schools on student outcomes, although several attempts have been made. Most studies hypothesize that self-selection explains some of the variation between outcomes for students who choose a school and those who don't. Many of the magnet schools, alternative schools, and private schools in our sample have documented considerable success with their students, but we do not know what role personal self-selection or institutional selectivity have played in their positive results. Furthermore, we know nothing about the educational experiences and outcomes for students who do not "get in" to the schools that we studied. As choice options and charter schools proliferate, policymakers must take these factors into account when judging their success.

Out-of-School Time Reconsidered

One of the most striking features of the schools in this study is the extent to which classroom-based academic instruction, while viewed as very important, is only one aspect of the overall school program. The students' personal and social development share center stage with academic achievement among the schools' missions. The faculty at most of the schools view the students as individuals who require more than formal academic instruction to learn and grow into healthy, productive adulthood. Knowing how to socialize in safe and healthy ways, for example, is viewed as an equally important set of life skills to be learned.

This concern for the whole child has taken on a very practical focus for the schools, given that many of their students have very few healthy out-of-school options for learning and personal development. During our interviews with public school students, they commonly mentioned watching television, hanging out with friends, or playing sports in the neighborhood, but not much else. Safety is a serious concern for most students attending urban schools, one that is intensified for those who come from homes where parents work or are otherwise unavailable to supervise or simply watch out for their children. We found that many students are aware of the precarious futures they face as adolescents growing up in poor urban areas, and they recognize their schools as both refuge and ticket to a more stable future.

Concern for the healthy growth and development of youth's intellectual, personal, social, and physical skills, coupled with recognition that out-of-school time is full of underutilized learning opportunities to foster growth and development, has prompted these schools to expand the time that they are open and available to students. All of the schools in this study have maintained a full academic program, but many also offer different educational activities afterschool. Several also provide at least some structured and constructive activities during a portion of the summer break.

It is particularly in the context of educating the whole child that the residential and Jesuit schools have influenced our thinking. Sometimes using their instructional staff, sometimes involving other adults, these schools extend the learning time in the day by many hours and explicitly accept responsibility for types of learning that go well beyond academics. We do not suggest that many more residential schools should be built (although orphanages have re-entered the policy arena). Nor do we mean to imply that families do not play the most critical role when it comes to learning values such as respect and responsibility. We do, however, come away from this study convinced that better use could be made of the total time available for education.

If there is one area that seems ripe for policy attention, it is the relationship between the schools and other educators in the society. In a recently published book entitled Urban Sanctuaries, McLaughlin, Irby, and Langman (1994) argue that lack of attractive out-of-school opportunities, not lack of interest, is the main reason inner-city youth spend so much time in unproductive and often destructive activities. Our conversations with students and faculty bear this out.

Schools in this study that are located in the most economically deprived neighborhoods in their cities report high participation rates in their afterschool, weekend, and summer programs. This may not seem surprising given that roughly 40 percent of an adolescent's time is discretionary and uncommitted (Medrich, 1991; Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1992). But these participation rates do run counter to a common view of adolescents that McLaughlin and her colleagues encountered among foundations, government, and social agencies: the view that adolescents have no interest in organized activities no matter what their content. Our data suggest that young people are willing and eager to commit their free time to participation in activities that are provided through, or in association with, local schools when the activities are well-conceived and well-structured.

Finally, McLaughlin and her colleagues point out that many of the nonschool experiences that young people have result in learning--sometimes learning that is more relevant and important to them that what they learn at school (assuming that they have not yet dropped out). To the best of our knowledge, the educational system in the United States--public and private schools alike--has never seriously entertained the idea that learning derived somewhere other than a school should be allowed to "count" toward the all-important credentials that mark completion or mastery. We suggest that now is an excellent time to examine this issue. The schools complain that problems are multiplying and that they are expected to "do it all." That does not have to be the case. Help is available--if schools, policymakers, and citizens will accept it as legitimate.

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