Improving Education Takes More Than Minutes
While advocating for structural changes in the way schools run, along with questioning the appropriate use of testing, required standards and curriculum, design of the schedule, length of school day and year, let's put minutes of instruction on the table. It has never made much sense that arbitrary times have been set for minutes of instruction. Whoever thought that students could learn best in subject-based time blocks resulting in something like 120 hours of instruciton in a year?
As the world's most inclusive public education system, we have welcomed increasing numbers of students with varying readiness levels, from different home environments, with varying socio-economic status including a growing number of students who live in poverty. The learning ability of these students runs the gamut. Although "proudly we hail" that we have accomplished this, the question about minutes of instruction remains. In the extreme, we have established a set of laws and mandates that provide special education services for students who are considered by our system to be disabled, a proud accomplishment. And, included in the talents of special education teachers are maneuvering their way through the interaction of students' abilities, the required curriculum, more minutes of instruction and, sometimes, more minutes for taking tests.
One Size Can Never Fit All
Carnegie credits in the high school, and a locally decided version for elementary and middle schools, have been in place for more than a century. Minutes of instruction has been an arbitrary decision. Although in the elementary and middle school, reading, an essential skill, can be included in art, science, history, and even math, there is no way of guaranteeing that students are getting the instruction they need to continue to build their skills. On the high school level, it has never been clear how the minutes of instruction for learning about American History can be the same as the minutes for instruction for a math or science course. But, bells ring. The teachers and students have done it for over a century. Arbitrary at best, the minutes have shaped the courses and the creativity of the teacher.
The much-discussed Common Core Standards have raised a question about this once again. The difference between what students need to know and what students will be able to do with that knowledge is vast. The standards tend to ebb and flow between the two making them hard to defend in places...but their intent can be divined as laudable. The standards and minutes of instruction hold us to something that is either confining or comfortable, depending on our view. How would we, ourselves, react if perceived constraints were removed...no national standards, no minutes of instruction.
Our public education system, the center of our democracy, lives within a global environment now. Technology and mobility have made it so. Our graduates from one place will probably work in another. Can we guarantee parity if there were no national standards? So the intention of Carnegie credits, minutes of instruction, and national standards is to guarantee all students, across the country, the same learning expectations. But they don't.
There are many other factors that play into this equation. Leader and teacher quality is one of them. In that spirit, the new national attempts to evaluate leader and teacher quality was legislated. Ill informed at best, wanting children to have highly talented leaders and teachers is a good thing, isn't it?
Another factor in this equation is socio-economic status. Those students living in poverty come to school carrying a huge burden including hunger and health problems. It is more likely that they have suffered the loss of a parent to incarceration. The nature of the household in poverty is one of survival. No time for reading to a child or asking questions for thoughtful reflection. It is more about getting food on the table and a roof over their heads.
Funding is another factor. Compared to neighboring communities where the tax base is higher, schools are better funded, and students enjoy family trips to museums, libraries, and other countries, how can we expect these two to reach the standards with the same requirement for minutes of instruction? It simply doesn't make sense.
But on the other hand, what organization in the world doesn't hold standards of performance? So where does the arrow land? We need to hold national expectations, and we need to hold people responsible for meeting those standards. But the standards themselves can be limiting. We assert this is the equation, the intersection, the very place the national discussion should be taking place before we tinker any more with any one factor, including the current discussion about minutes of instruction.
leader and teacher quality + socio-economic status + ability/disability + social factors + minutes of instruction + funding = equal opportunity for attaining success measured by the same standards
The entry point to the discussion can be any of these factors. Right now the national standards and principal and teacher evaluation is high on the list. But addressing any one of these factors without allowing the rest of these factors onto the table is a mistake. The current focus on teacher evaluation alone will not improve education for children because teacher quality is only one of the contributing factors to a schools success or failure. No one of us can solve this problem. Voices from each of the contributing factors must be heard in concert with the others. The barriers created by opinion and belief must become permeable in order to hear the voices from the other side of the table. These factors must be understood and shared within and outside of our schools and must be addressed, understood, and considered in decision making. In the meantime, how teaching and learning takes place continues to be locally decided. There is room for shifts in the way teaching and learning takes place even with the current limits and pressures. This is a call for courageous leaders, facilitators to step forward and manage important and complex conversations between those with competing interests and opinions. We must come together, all voices heard, and stop limiting progress by tinkering.
"If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself" - Henry Ford