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September 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 1

Letter from Washington

    EL is pleased to introduce a new column, “Letter from Washington.” Denis P. Doyle will reflect on school matters and share his perspective on news events and federal policy changes affecting schools. Doyle is editor of The Doyle Report, an e-newsletter on technology and education (<LINK URL="http://www.thedoylereport.com">www.thedoylereport.com</LINK>).

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      The rhythm of schooling is so deeply ingrained that September is “back-to-school time” for all of us. I remember having mixed emotions, sighing because vacation was over. It was always satisfying to come back one grade higher, but always surprising that I never felt as cool as the upperclassmen I remembered. They had seemed so sophisticated and grown-up; what happened to me and my classmates?
      Atavistic memories like these help explain the enduring nature of schooling's administrative arrangements—fixed class times, fixed starting and ending dates, and age grouping of students. The world is not arranged that way. Imagine a farm, firm, or factory with workers grouped by age, or employment cycles that begin and end arbitrarily. But old ways die hard. The school clock and calendar that we take for granted are the products of administrative convenience and a factory model.
      To be sure, there are other influences—cycles of planting and harvesting still echo in school calendars. This school cycle made sense when half the nation's population lived on the land. Today, less than 2.5 percent of Americans do, an artificially high number thanks to federal farm policies.
      But if schooling invokes romantic memories, then economic necessity suggests that it is time to reimagine what the modern school clock and calendar might look like. When I was a member of the National Commission on Time and Learning, I co-edited our report to the nation, Prisoners of Time, which attempted to generate a quantum leap in thinking about schooling. We recognized good reasons for the status quo: It was not surprising that our great experiment in mass education should look much like the society of which it was a part. Frederick Taylor's scientific management theories had found a receptive home in U.S. schools. Charged with educating a diverse student body in the midst of a rapidly industrializing economy, the school acculturated great waves of foreign and domestic migrants to the ways of work and the rudiments of learning.
      The schools at the end of the 19th century looked like Henry Ford's assembly line. Students were the products, teachers the workers, principals the foremen, the superintendent the building overseer, the school board the Board of Directors, and the citizens the shareholders. Just as “worker proofing” work was the triumph of the industrial revolution, workers, like the products that they made, were so many interchangeable parts. “Teacher proofing” the classroom came naturally.
      Former American Federation of Teachers President Al Shanker dryly observed that ifOne-third of the products don't work when they reach the end of the line, and one-third fall off before the end, you don't improve performance by running the line faster and longer. You get a new metaphor.
      Those of us who served on the National Commission on Time and Learning thought that a new metaphor was within reach: performance standards. The metric would be mastery, not time in the saddle. The Foreign Service Institute's language school serves as an example. Diplomatic attachés need to manage a second language with reasonable facility, spies a good deal more, and translators more yet. At issue is not how long or where you studied but how well you do. A performance standard on a 1–5 scale exists: 0 is my knowledge of Chinese, 5+ is that of a simultaneous translator—and every student is rated. Students who are motivated and adept learn rapidly and well; the less motivated and less adept take longer. You study until you get it. And what you get is a rating, not a grade, depending on what you learned and are able to do. It's as simple as that.
      As former Harvard Education School Dean Pat Graham was fond of saying, for 150 years we held time constant and let learning vary; in the future, we must hold learning constant and let time vary. One of the little-noted dangers of No Child Left Behind is that its AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) provisions reinforce age grouping of students rather than grouping students according to accomplishment, as they are in higher education.
      One of the benefits of performance standards is that no one fails. Everyone belongs somewhere on a trajectory that starts at zero and ends with mastery, no matter the person's age or circumstance. The corollary is that no one can play out the clock and calendar—there is no social promotion in a standards-based system.
      The real power of disconnecting time and learning, then, is that it makes students workers and teachers managers of instruction. Finally, the organization of school must fit its purposes—standards-based learning calls for standards-based instruction and assessment.

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