Over the past months of lockdown, I’ve watched how distance learning is playing out at home with my own 15-year-old Vashon High Pirate.
Between Delta math and Vocab.com sessions, required for school and taking about 6 percent of her day to complete, my daughter is spending hours at our neighbor’s treating a colicky horse. She’s building elaborate forest forts with her cousins and teaching herself how to play Billie Eilish songs on the piano. She’s setting up an Etsy business where she makes and sells custom light switch covers. She has had some great ‘continuous learning’ opportunities provided to her by her Biology teacher and spent last weekend surveying sea stars at Raab’s Lagoon – but it was all done on her time, motivated by tide tables and passion rather than the start and end of third-period.
I’m not surprised to see how well she is doing with this type of guided, but self-directed learning. “Doing school” has been a Sisyphean task in our home since homework sheets started showing up in first grade. The pace, social pressures, and often the nature of the work itself creates a brew that doesn’t always bring out the best in my learner. (Full disclosure, I am a 25+ year teacher and counselor and I’ve been trying to crack the code on how to make schoolwork better for kids like my own for a long time.)
In 2001, I was working as a teacher at Foster High School in Tukwila, WA. Our students were generally struggling with engaging with school due to various factors – high poverty, systemic oppression, and PTSD, for example. Frankly, a lot of what was being asked of them was irrelevant and boring. School was not adapting to these learners. They were expected to set aside dealing with complex trauma, caring for younger siblings, and working significant hours to help pay rent, so they could attend to the work of school. Our graduation rates were abysmal and our college process was horribly skewed to benefit the most privileged in our community.
Prompted by equal measures of idealism, desperation, and opportunity, we were asking ourselves some big essential questions: what is the purpose of school? Why were we continuing to use a 100-year-old system of educating students when its central structures — compliance, drill and skill, rote memorization, and one-sided versions of historic events — were clearly designed to perpetuate privilege and contain young minds, rather than inviting critical thought and creativity?
Through a generous grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we became part of an educational experiment to redesign our school emphasizing academic rigor with relevant, experiential learning. The common denominator in making it all work was time: time to research and plan new curriculum, time to start and end the day, time spent in a discrete content area, time within the academic calendar, time to collaborate in learning activities, time spent in a given course, time to complete a set of graduation requirements, time spent completing one’s high school program and so on.
We spent years researching and revising our systems to tackle the time issue, but we could not surmount the Everest of all time constraints: The Carnegie Unit.
In a nutshell, the Carnegie Unit is a system of awarding academic credit based on the number of trackable hours a student spends learning a subject. It determines how long a course should last, the length of a school year, the period of time it takes for a student to ‘complete’ school and more. Federal funding for school districts is still based on the Carnegie Unit. It was developed with good intentions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to create a standard of practice for teaching and learning that would, ideally, promote equality. Yet the one-size-fits-most model was always about time spent, not about supporting pathways to content mastery.
When schools are accredited and funded based on seat-time, how much of the experience becomes about watching the clock, keeping students ‘busy,’ and racing against time to meet learning standards? How much of what we believe is essential learning gets stretched thin over the frame of time? What types of learning cannot be quantified by ‘cheeks in the seats’ methods?
The pandemic is the first time we’ve been challenged nationally to let go of the Carnegie Unit as the de facto unit of learning. Many states, including Washington, are waiving seat-time requirements in favor of ‘continuous learning plans’ to end this academic year. So what does learning look like now that we seem to have all the time in the world? When school eventually reopens, how can we leave some of the sands from that hourglass on the beach rather than stuffing it all back into the school day?
My fondest hope is that measuring learning by seat-time will be forever unraveled by COVID 19 and we’ll continue to explore adaptive, asynchronous ways that allow students to grow intellectually and personally on timetables informed by culturally-responsive, whole-child best practices.
Nancy Leonhardt is an educator and mental health counselor in private practice. Her website is pineconecounseling.com.