Monday, July 13, 2009

Eliminating Seat Time Requirements

In the past year or two, I have come to question the concept of "seat time" or "contact hours" in public education, and I am more intrigued by a focus on accomplishment of core competencies. Earlier, I posted about the Adams 50 district in Colorado that was eliminating "grade levels" in preference for students progressing through skill levels or competencies - this has been found effective for struggling students and is in use at various alternative schools around the US. That, of course, leads me to question why it isn't being addressed at all levels for all students.

Interestingly, this issue came up in the most recent issue of Esquire where former governor Jeb Bush, who is of a similar mind, said, "We should have 'seat time' eliminated . . . You show up for 180 days, you graduate. It should be based on what you learned. People learn differently. It's a simple fact that our education system ignores." While that is a bit of an exaggeration, I was intrigued to hear someone talking about it. Certainly, it's not just 180 hours and a diploma - there are core requirements in those 180 days and thirteen years. However, there have been enough horror stories of illiterate graduates to indict the system for extremely low expectations of how that "seat time" is used.

After a little research, I learned that the state of Indiana feels the same way and has done something about it:

In its first meeting under the direction of Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Tony Bennett, the State Board of Education approved a series of reforms aimed at facilitating student-centered learning and removing unnecessary regulations.

“Teachers and principals have repeatedly expressed to me their frustration with regulations that prevent them from delivering the best possible instruction to their students,” Bennett said. “The actions taken today by the State Board of Education are a first step toward eliminating unnecessary requirements that all too often get in the way of our primary focus which is the achievement of students.”

Among the actions taken by the state board today was the elimination of a requirement for 250 minutes of instruction per week to earn credit for high school courses. The removal of this requirement will give schools much needed flexibility in developing curriculum and creative scheduling options that best meet the needs of individual students.

“We need to measure success by what students are actually learning, not by how many minutes they’re sitting in a particular class each week,” Bennett said. “Principals, if they’re willing to be creative, now have a powerful new tool to help maximize educational opportunities for students.”

That sounds about right, and I am surprised there hasn't been more discussion of this type of change. It is an important part of the reform discussion, and one that I hope to see Colorado address this year as well. This scholarly paper notes:

The obsolete nature of current school structures is evident in the way large groups of students with the same birthdays move from subject expert to subject expert in incremental blocks of time, in the way success is measured by seat time and rote return of information, and in the way what is learned during the "school year" is lost during the summer, perpetuating the difference in learning levels for various socioeconomic groups. In this article, the author calls for a reinvention of how citizens are educated rather than continuously trying to improve the existing education "systems."

There is no doubt that students progress at different levels, and simply establishing thirteen years with a 1080 hours of teacher contact time a year as the standard model is nothing short of inefficient. As I've noted before, many of my AP students are certainly "ready" to start working on their bachelor degree - both in terms of knowledge/skill and maturity. Thus, there is little sense in restricting their ability to do that.

"Seat time" might need to become the next big discussion on the education reform stage.


Anonymous said...

I think the Adams 50 plan is about the worst plan I've ever seen. It is just another excuse for a small part of America to continue coddling it's children into no return.
If you have ever met an exchange student from a country with work ethic, like Germany, You realize our time at school is already spookily easy. A girl I Met at Rangeview High School last year was taking 15 credits. With all A's. And that's just that year.
We already hav more potential to learn that what we do. And if we keep taking steps like this, we will absolutely never reach that potential.

mmazenko said...


If you're going to cite European education systems, you should acknowledge the logic and efficiency by which they move their kids to higher education and careers. What Adams 50 is doing is challenging the notion of 13 years and 170 days a year to education. Those numbers are so arbitrary - some kids are faster, some are slower, and some proficiencies are mixed. When I was a sophomore in high school, I took a senior level history course because I was ready. I wasn't, however, ready for the same jump in math.

Adams 50 is merely moving toward efficiency by allowing kids to advance when - and only when - they are proficient. It's an improvement over the standards of social promotion, and if you did any educational research, you'd know it is very successful among struggling populations, increasing graduation and decreasing dropouts. Nothing is easier, it's simply timed differently.

You might also know, if you really understand foreign education systems, that German and French and English and Swedish and Taiwanese and Japanese students are already tracked into academic and non-academic schools by the age of fifteen. America on the other hand educates all kids as if they are going to a four year college, even though only 29% will ever earn a degree. It's noble and visionary and optimistic ... and hugely inefficient.

We should allow students to progress to whatever they want - and are able. Thus, if a kid is taking AP classes at sophomore year, there is no reason, he/she can't finish a bachelor degree by 19 or 20. The seat time requirements inhibit that, but Adams 50 model if broadened would improve it.

You might also note, as I have, that while some countries' kids go to school much longer and do twice as much homework, their buildings and bridges are twice as strong, their scientists aren't twice as innovative, their doctors aren't twice as effective, and their governments and businesses aren't twice as efficient or productive.

Thus, you're sweeping generalizations don't really address the problem. Instead, you just want to dump on public education and reform.