Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.
― Mark Twain
So school is canceled yet another day. I haven’t been keeping count, but that must take it to 12 or so this winter, at least by my very dim reckoning. I don’t have to pay attention to those details anymore but voices are raised in an expected chorus of alarm over the number of instructional days students are missing. If you are detecting a certain “tone” in those first few sentences, you’re right. Maybe not for the reason you’re thinking, though. I’m far less concerned with the hand-wringing over time away from class than I am with the things that such concern obscures. Another way of putting it: Time away from class – on the list of things that should concern us about our schools – has perhaps the least impact on our system.
I remember very clearly when the shift occurred that gave us the now common phrase “time on task”. I had been teaching for seven years and a change was coming to high schools in New Brunswick: semestering was about to be adopted and the primary rationale was identified as the need for students to spend more time in class, especially at the high school level. Under the old system, a couple of weeks before Christmas were taken up with the administration of exams. A similar regime existed at the end of the year. With semestering, all exams were expected to be administered over four days and the year was divided into equal halves. If you were wondering, that is how we ended up with a school year where exams occur in January.
When this change began, any number of us decried the loss that this entailed, chief among those losses the continuity that was a key element of the old system. As a teacher of English, I was especially concerned; I firmly believe that a mastery of language requires constancy. With semestering, in its earliest form, it was entirely possible for a student to take an English course in the first semester of one year and not take another until the second semester of the following year. My colleagues at the time and I (and any others in other schools with whom I might have spoken) were united in our opposition. I won’t bother you with the details of all that followed. Suffice to say that I mark the institution of semestering in high schools as the beginning of a decline in student achievement which, to me, was ongoing for the remainder of my career. Things began to go downhill and they have never recovered. Now things get complicated. Semestering, per se, isn’t the problem. The deeper issue is embodied in that phrase I mentioned earlier: “time on task”.
Depending on your mindset, you might view the demand that more time be given to a task as a good thing. Additionally, as the actual processes of education within schools become increasingly obscure to the average person (and to a great many of those who are supposedly practicing and/or implementing such processes), worrying about the number of hours students spend in classrooms can seem reasonable and, at the very least, manageable. I think it is a fairly common truism that we all tend toward those things that we find manageable or that don’t intimidate us.
The “time on task” mantra satisfies the same demographic that takes comfort in the numbers of students retained in school until a certain age, or in the increasing numbers of high school graduates as a percentage of the student body. All three offer only the most superficial measure of success (?) in schools but the key word here is “measure”.
In no way am I opposed to having time made up that is lost to weather. Should all subsequent winters prove to be as ridiculous as this one has been, having taught high school for almost thirty years, I could not argue against allowing for some time to be made up. But the amount of time someone spends in a classroom can in no way stand as a measure of the effectiveness of a school system. Unfortunately, the “time-on-task” mentality presupposes that all facets of education are objectively measurable and so easily compartmentalized that we need only establish and maintain a clear timeline in order to ensure that all the necessary “educating” gets done. I hope the last part of that sentence sounds as dumb to you as it does to me; in the end, all of my ramblings about education can be illustrated through my rejection of the notion that education is something that “gets done”.
As I’ve tried to outline in a number of my other blogs, when you try to reduce something as complex as education to a series of strategies and outcomes (or whatever the jargon of the moment might be), leading to some kind of “improved” education or, in tune with another feature of current eduspeak, “21st century education”, you will never succeed. In the same way that you cannot teach literacy (you can teach reading and writing in hopes that people would BECOME increasingly literate), you cannot quantify education in such a way that it becomes objectively measurable in any absolute sense.
People, especially those in power, rarely feel comfortable with things they cannot control. As we have come to look upon our schools more and more as almost exclusively a conduit for the workers of the future (schools as training facilities), and as instruments of social engineering, “education”, as a term, has become increasingly uncomfortable for those who want to exercise such control. I believe the preference for “learning” in reference to what schools do is a consequence of that discomfort. Learning can be objectively measured, or at least that is the argument. Education is far more nebulous and immune to objectification.
“Time on task” is not about quality education; it is about control. Someone, some time ago, bought into the idea that education and test results were the same thing or, at least, that test results can allow one to quantify education. Can you think of any other arena where little or no objective improvement (a decline, in fact, both in literacy and numeracy, by most measures) in thirty years would have people continuing to pursue the models consistently proven ineffective? All I can say is: welcome to education in the 21st century. Or should I say “learning”.