Stop Wasting Time at School!

Our education system is based upon the notion of “seat hours”. Depending on which state you live in, children in public school are required to spend 175-180 days or 900-1,000 hours per year in school. Most four- year public universities require 120 credit hours to earn a degree[1]. When you think about it, it doesn’t make much sense that we measure education by the amount of time a student spends in a classroom. Other models are emerging—Khan Academy and Western Governor’s University have shone a spotlight on mastery or competency models, and even the Carnegie Foundation, the original creator of the framework for 120 credit “Carnegie units” for secondary education, is re-thinking whether this is the right model[2]. But, for now, America’s public schools still focus on the amount of time students spend at school.

Putting aside the issue of whether we should be focused on student attendance for a certain number of hours a day and days per year, what I’d like to know is: Why are we wasting so much of this time?

It’s strange because we hear so much about all the pressures exerted on teachers right now. Teachers are supposed to cram more information into more students to prepare for more high-stakes tests. Common Core…PARCC…Smarter Balanced…AP…IB…SAT…ACT… Increased homework load…It seems there are not enough hours in the day to fit it all in, and yet, every day we are wasting huge amounts of our students’ time!

I implore you to glance into our classrooms—whether it’s first grade or 11th—what you’ll find in almost any classroom is a certain percentage of the students completely tuned out. They are staring out the window, fiddling with their water bottle, or asking to be excused to the restroom even though they took a trip there last period. There are at least a couple of these kids, if not more, in most classes. Maybe they are bored; maybe the work is too difficult, or too easy; maybe they are just tired of the same routine, of the sound of the teacher’s voice. This is a huge waste of time and resources!

Just to put some figures to this: In the US there are approximately 56 million students enrolled in K-12 school[3]. We spend an average of approximately $13,000 per student per year in public district schools, which works out to roughly $73 per student per day, or $14 per hour. If every day 10% of our students are not paying attention and not learning for 20 minutes (conservative assumptions which I think grossly underestimate this figure), we are wasting $1.6 million each year. Compound this figure by kids not paying attention over multiple years, the dropout rate from kids who are not engaged, the unemployment rate of students who do not have sufficient education or skills to be productive members of our workforce, and I’m sure the figures are staggering.

Then there are the kids who can’t sit still and focus. Putting aside the controversial issue of ADD and ADHD as an epidemic, I’m talking about kids who just have a lot of energy and struggle to sit in their seat and listen. One reason this is so prevalent is the decrease in the amount of arts and physical education happening at school. With so much attention given to math and ELA and ‘core subjects’ taking on increasing importance in the Common Core, Race to the Top, and other high stakes tests, there is less and less time for quality art, music, movement, theater, and physical education in most public schools. These are classes that students typically get to move around, use their senses and get out of their seats to do. Lately it seems as if, even when kids have access to these subjects, they are often doing a lot more listening and testing and a lot less moving around.

Then there are the endless celebrations. I don’t mean to sound like the Grinch here, but do we really need to celebrate so many holidays, birthdays and school spirit days? Can we really afford to take time away from learning to have parties at school? My daughter’s middle school in Seattle, WA has homeroom period for 30 minutes every day in which the students hang out or work on homework. What’s the point of that? Most of this stuff has little educational value; I think teachers and students just need a break every now and then from the mundane school day.

Which brings me to my point…Why does school have to feel like such a chore? Why is it so boring? Why do we expect people to learn while sitting at a desk for 900-1,000 hours per year?  Learning is exciting. Human beings want to learn; we want to be around our peers and interact. School should be engaging, relevant and interesting. Students should connect with each other, with their teachers and with the material.

Our public school system is large and complex. We have many reasons why we are ranked 27th in math and 17th in reading on the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings[4]. Experts are challenging the notions that our schools perform poorly because students spend less time in school than their counterparts in India and China,[5] or because our schools are overcrowded or underfunded. It’s time we stopped making excuses and took a good look at what goes on inside our classrooms.

What would happen if we empowered students to take charge of their own learning? Rather than being tasked with showing up, sitting down, listening and being prepared for a test, what would our classrooms look like if students were challenged to shape their own learning, ask good questions, listen to one another, and collaborate? What would schools look like if students were encouraged to follow their natural curiosity and find evidence to support their ideas? Instead of valuing being quiet and sitting nicely, what if we valued nurturing a love of learning? Students who already have a knowledge base could do more research and help others learn. Students who are struggling could feel safe to speak up and get help from teachers, fellow students or technology.

To do this would require all of us—parents, students, teachers and administrators—to shift our mindsets away from the ‘seat hour’ view of education. Let’s stop treating education like prison where you ‘do your time’ and then get liberated. Quality education means creating environments where there is trust, where students’ voices are valued, and where everyone feels empowered to learn. Only when we invest in developing schools as places where students are interested and engaged will our performance improve, not only on high stakes tests like PARCC, Smarter Balanced, and PISA, but also we will help our economy since graduation rates will improve, students will be more employable, and we will create generations of people who continue to love to learn.

[1] Program Requirements for Associate’s and Bachelor’s Degrees, Complete College America, 2011

[2] “More Cracks in the Credit Hour”, Inside Higher Ed, December 5, 2012

[3] National Center for Education Statistics, 2009-10

[4] OECD PISA Rankings 2012

[5] Center for Public Education