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Seat Time or Results?

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This is a guest post from Dr. Terry I. Brooks who is the Executive Director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.

I know that colleagues to the North will smile but in Kentucky, the big education issue in our just completed legislative session revolved around making up snow days. Admittedly, in Kentucky, schools cancel classes if snow is predicted. A dusting is a sure cause to close and more than an inch may mean kids are out for weeks!

This winter has been worse than most with some school districts in eastern Kentucky quite legitimately missing more than a month of school. This has caused lots of consternation for state legislators and superintendents. Should they "forgive" days so schools can let out before the July 4th fireworks go off? If so, how many days should be "forgiven?" If we "forgive" days, is that a retreat from rigorous learning standards or a common sense accommodation to the rhythms of schools in the Commonwealth?

I will leave the details of this year's calendar to our lawmakers, but all this snow-day debate reminds me of the age when school reform was alive in Kentucky. The debate then was around results versus seat-time. One side of the equation was dead set that a Carnegie unit meant this many minutes of seat time and any deviation therein was surely opening the gates to softened standards. On the other side (admittedly mine!) was a legion led by national rebel reformers like Grant Wiggins and Ted Sizer. That chorus of voices echoed with ideas like "performance by exhibition" and "diploma by demonstration." They talked about high school seniors - and even sophomores and juniors - essentially "comping" out of the standard courses of study through authentic assessments to pursue independent projects; community-based learning; and/or, a more rapid move towards advanced study be that on a university track or at a technical work site. The debate was rigorous. And there were actually some innovative and wildly successful tries at recalibrating school definitions of time. These pioneering tries captured the imagination of what could be.

Those days are long gone. Seemingly accountability standards and assessment systems; changing governance personalities; and the pressures of the times have unalterably moved us back toward convention. And the debate becomes about how many minutes a student sits in the classroom and not about the kind of learner that student has become. Maybe - just maybe - it is time to re-engage a discussion about time and learning and schools without reference to any wintry mix, but with a total focus on how we want to develop graduates who are knowledge workers. I wonder if there is margin for today's education establishment to re-think the relative priority placed on time versus results?

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