The Time Prison

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Decades of school improvement efforts have foundered on a fundamental design flaw, the assumption that learning can be doled out by the clock and defined by the calendar. Research confirms common sense. Some students take three to six times longer than others to learn the same thing. Yet students are caught in a time trap-processed on an assembly line scheduled to the minute. Our usage of time virtually assures the failure of many students.

Under today's practices, high-ability students are forced to spend more time than they need on a curriculum developed for students of moderate ability. Many become bored, unmotivated, and frustrated. They become prisoners of time.

Struggling students are forced to move with the class and receive less time than they need to master the material. They are penalized with poor grades. They are pushed on to the next task before they are ready. They fall further and further behind and begin living with a powerful dynamic of school failure that is reinforced as long as they remain enrolled or until they drop out. They also become prisoners of time.

What of "average" students? They get caught in the time trap as well. Conscientious teachers discover that the effort to motivate the most capable and help those in difficulty robs them of time for the rest of the class. Typical students are prisoners of time too.

The paradox is that the more the school tries to be fair in allocating time, the more unfair the consequences. Providing equal time for students who need more time guarantees unequal results. If we genuinely intend to give every student an equal opportunity to reach high academic standards, we must understand that some students will require unequal amounts of time, i.e., they will need additional time.

One response to the difficulty of juggling limited time to meet special needs has been the development of "pull-out programs," in which students needing reinforcement or more advanced work are "pulled out" of the regular classroom for supplemental work. Attractive in theory, these programs, in practice, replace regular classroom time in the same subject. They add little additional time for learning. Students deserve an education that matches their needs every hour of the school day, not just an hour or two a week. Pull-out programs are a poor part-time solution to a serious full-time problem.


The traditional school day, originally intended for core academic learning, must now fit in a whole set of requirements for what has been called "the new work of the schools"-education about personal safety, consumer affairs, AIDS, conservation and energy, family life, driver's training-as well as traditional nonacademic activities, such as counseling, gym, study halls, homeroom, lunch and pep rallies. The school day, nominally six periods, is easily reduced at the secondary level to about three hours of time for core academic instruction.

Most Americans believe these activities are worthwhile. But where do schools find the time? Within a constrained school day, it can only come from robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Time lost to extracurricular activities is another universal complaint of educators. A 1990 survey of Missouri principals indicated that student activities can deny students the equivalent of seven school days a year. According to these principals, the academic calendar falls victim to demands from athletics, clubs, and other activities. Who is to say that these pastimes are not beneficial to many students? But how much academic time can be stolen from Peter to pay Paul?


Over the last generation, American life has changed profoundly. Many of our children are in deep trouble.

Family structure has changed dramatically. Half of American children spend some portion of their childhood in a single-parent home, and family time with children has declined 40 percent since World War II.

The workforce is different. Of the 53 million women working in the United States in 1991, 20.8 million had children under the age of 17, including nearly 9 million with children under age six.

Society is more diverse and rapidly becoming more so. By the year 2010, 40 percent of all children in this country will be members of minority groups. The nation's big city schools are already coping with a new generation of immigrant children, largely non-English speaking, rivaling in size the great European immigrations of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Income inequality is growing. One fifth of all children, and nearly half of all African-American children, are born into poverty today. The United States leads advanced nations in poverty, single-parent families, and mortality rates for those under age 25. Poverty is not simply an urban phenomenon. The number of rural children living in poverty far exceeds the number living in cities.

Technology threatens to widen the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots." The wealthiest 25-30 percent of American families have a computer at home today, leading to a new phenomenon, preschoolers who can use computers before they can read a book.

Anxiety about crime-ridden streets is a daily reality in many communities. Suicide and homicide are the leading cause of death for young men. For some students, the streets are a menace. For many, the family that should be their haven is itself in trouble. Still others arrive at school hungry, unwashed, and frightened by the plagues of modern life-drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, and AIDs.

According to a 1992 study completed at Stanford University, veteran teachers are well aware that today's students bring many more problems to school than children did a generation ago. Today's students receive less support outside school and increasingly exhibit destructive behavior ranging from drug and alcohol abuse to gang membership and precocious sexual activity. According to a recent Harris poll, 51 percent of teachers single out "children who are left on their own after school" as the primary explanation for students' difficulties in class. The same poll reports that 12 percent of elementary school children (30 percent in middle school and nearly 40 percent in high school) care for themselves after the school day ends.

But the school itself is a prisoner of time. Despite the dedication of their staffs, schools are organized as though none of this has happened. It is clear that schools cannot be all things to all people-teachers cannot be parents, police officers, physicians, and addiction or employment counselors. But neither can they ignore massive problems. It is time to face the obvious. In many communities, when children are not with their families, the next best place for them is the school.


The corollary to Murphy's Law holds in schools just as it does in life- everything takes longer than you expect. School reform is no exception. While restructuring time, schools need time to restructure. Perversely, according to a recent RAND study, the reallocation of time collides directly with forces of the status quo-entrenched school practices; rules and regulations; traditions of school decision-making; and collective bargaining. The greatest resistance of all is found in the conviction that the only valid use of teachers' time is "in front of the class;" the assumption that reading, planning, collaboration with other teachers and professional development are somehow a waste of time.

In light of this, the following findings are particularly troubling:

According to a RAND study, new teaching strategies can require as much as 50 hours of instruction, practice and coaching before teachers become comfortable with them.

A study of successful urban schools indicates they needed up to 50 days of external technical assistance for coaching and strengthening staff skills through professional development.

Resolution of the time issue "remains one of the most critical problems confronting educators today," according to the National Education Association. "For school employees involved in reform, time has become an implacable barrier."

As a representative of the American Federation of Teachers said at a recent Teachers Forum on GOALS 2000 sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, "We've got to turn around the notion that we have to do everything without being given the time to do it."

Teachers, principals and administrators need time for reform. They need time to come up to speed as academic standards are overhauled, time to come to grips with new assessment systems, and time to make productive and effective use of greater professional autonomy, one hallmark of reform in the 1990s. Adding school reform to the list of things schools must accomplish, without recognizing that time in the current calendar is a limited resource, trivializes the effort. It sends a powerful message to teachers: don't take this reform business too seriously. Squeeze it in on your own time.


As 1994 dawned, calls for much more demanding subject matter standards began to bear fruit. Intended for all students, new content frameworks will extend across the school curriculum-English, science, history, geography, civics, the arts, foreign languages, and mathematics, among others. Their purpose is to bring all American youngsters up to world-class performance standards.

The American people and their educators need to be very clear about the standards movement. It is not time-free. At least three factors demand more time and better use of it.

First, subjects traditionally squeezed out of the curriculum now seek their place in the sun. Additional hours and days will be required if new standards in the arts, geography, and foreign languages are to be even partially attained.

Second, most students will find the traditional core curriculum significantly more demanding. Materials and concepts formerly reserved for the few must now be provided to the many. More student learning time and more flexible schedules for seminars, laboratories, team teaching, team learning, and homework will be essential.

Finally, one point cannot be restated too forcefully: professional development needs will be broad and massive. Indispensable to educated students are learned teachers in the classroom. An enormous change is at hand for the nation's 2.75 million teachers. To keep pace with changing content standards, teachers will need ongoing coursework in their disciplines while they continue to teach their subjects.

The Commission's hearings confirmed the time demands of the standards movement:

Arts. "I am here to pound the table for 15 percent of school time devoted to arts instruction," declared Paul Lehman of the Consortium of National Arts Education Associations.

English. "These standards will require a huge amount of time, for both students and teachers," teacher Miles Myers of the National Council of Teachers of English told the Commission.

Geography. "Implementing our standards will require more time. Geography is hardly taught at all in American schools today," was the conclusion of Anthony De Souza of the National Geographic Society.

Mathematics. "The standards I am describing are not the standards I received as a student or that I taught as a teacher," said James Gates of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Science. "There is a consensus view that new standards will require more time," said David Florio of the National Academy of Sciences.


Given the many demands made of schools today, the wonder is not that they do so poorly, but that they accomplish so much. Our society has stuffed additional burdens into the time envelope of 180 six-hour days without regard to the consequences for learning. We agree with the Maine mathematics teacher who said, "The problem with our schools is not that they are not what they used to be, but that they are what they used to be." In terms of time, our schools are unchanged despite a transformation in the world around them.

Each of the five issues - the design flaw, lack of academic time, out of school influences, time for educators, and new content and achievement standards - revolves around minutes, hours, and days. If the United States is to grasp the larger education ambitions for which it is reaching, we must strike the shackles of time from our schools.

The above article was extracted from the Prisoners Of Time report, dated April 1994, by National Education Commission on Time and Learning to the U.S. Government.

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