It’s Time We Talk About Seat Time

Take a seat. We need to talk.

The term seat time literally refers to the minimum amount of instructional time, or teacher-student contact time, schools are required to provide. As with most compliance regulations, the minimum often is also the maximum. There is variation by state, but between 5-6 hours per day for approximately 180 days, for a total of 900-1080 hours per school year is fairly typical.

Here in the northeast, the seat time requirement only becomes a prominent local issue around this time each year as we hope that the last big snowstorm is behind us and districts calculate whether they will need to adjust the school calendar to make up for time lost to snow days. Because as everyone knows, an extra day in mid-June is the equivalent of a school day lost in late January, or that there is lasting educational benefit to extending the last class of the day by 15 minutes for a few weeks.

The term seat time looks and sound innocuous.

But when said with just the right amount of disdain, the term seat time carries a force equal to the best educational epithets – standardized test, school choice, learning loss, DeVos. Plus, seat time is literally two four-letter words, and everyone who has ever been in an argument knows that two four-letter words strung together are exponentially worse than just one.

To a large extent, however, for those using the term in a derogatory manner seat time is nothing more than a straw man.

Why do I say that?

Because like many educational terms it means different things to different people, and like many education reform causes,

  1. The opposition to seat time more often than not is not really about seat time.
  2. The term has become a rallying cry, with multiple groups with diverse goals coalescing around their opposition to a common enemy: seat time.
  3. Real concerns related to students’ time in seats largely go unmentioned by the seat time crowd.

What lies beneath the problem labelled seat time?

Student Promotion on the Basis of Seat Time

One of the most common criticisms of seat time is the notion that students pass from one class and one grade level to another solely on the basis on time spent in class. Sit there for 180 days, pass Go, collect your $200, play on, until eventually you go directly to jail.

Is there wide variation in the achievement of students who earn an A and those who pass the same course with a D? Or even between students who earn an A in different levels of ostensibly the same course (e.g., basic, standard, honors) ? Most definitely.

Do some students move from one grade to the next ill-prepared to succeed? Based on state test results, I’m sure they do.

For the most part, these students are no longer able to perform at the Proficient level on state tests. States cleaned up discrepancy between 2010 and 2015.  Have states regressed since 2015? How will the pandemic affect new state tests and achievement standards?

You will be hard-pressed to find any written policy, or even unwritten rules, that direct students to be promoted solely on the basis of seat time. On the other hand, you will find policy that prohibits the promotion of students who have accumulated too many absences, regardless of their achievement or proficiency.

So, why decades into the era of state content and achievement standards do we still see large variation in student achievement? That’s a rhetorical question.

So, why decades into the era of state content and achievement standards does the practice of promoting ill-prepared students persist? That’s a real question, and I don’t think that the answer is related to seat time.

Social promotion is bad – for the most part. Retention is bad – for the most part.

If we figured out how to solve the real problem, however, neither would be an issue.

Proficient Students Held Back by Seat Time Requirements

On the flip side of the social promotion argument against seat time, we have those in the competency-based crowd who lament those students who because of seat time are forced to sit through classes whose content they have already mastered. “Move on when ready!” is their battle cry.

Differentiating courses of study for individual students, however, has always struck me as one area that secondary schools were pretty good at, especially in mathematics and science. There are practical and logistical constraints, of course, but advances in technology are breaking down many of those barriers.

Between dual-enrollment programs, creative pathways, improved and expanded vocational and technical offerings, a renewed focus (for better or worse) on creating closer ties between secondary education and the job market, I do not see a lot of resistance to flexibility in how students move through high school to graduation and post-secondary success.

This feels like an eminently solvable problem.

Seat Time as a Synonym for One-Size-Fits-All

 Another criticism that falls under the seat time banner is centered around the notion that seat time requirements for a particular program of study (e.g., four years of English, three of mathematics and lab sciences, two courses in a world language, one in U.S. history, etc.) are promoting a one-size-fits-all curriculum that doesn’t work for all students. The required courses are not the right courses for some students. The required courses are not fair to or relevant for particular groups of students or for some individual students.

For a long time now, I have promoted the idea that the “common core” (lowercase c’s) of knowledge and skills needed by all students can probably be acquired by the end of eighth grade, ninth grade tops. There should be plenty of room for variation and personalization at the high school level. I do believe that whatever pathway students follow should include opportunities to maintain the reading, writing, mathematics, and key 21stcentury skills needed for lifelong learning and success; but accomplishing that should not be a heavy lift.

The Elephant in the Room – The Kids Aren’t

Even before the pandemic, chronic absenteeism (i.e., getting students into their seats) was a real seat time problem. Some states were adding chronic absenteeism as an indicator in their accountability systems, but the problem was not getting the attention it deserved. A USED report showed that more than 20% of U.S. high school students were chronically absent (defined as 15+ days) in 2015-16 and there is evidence that percentage increased between 2016 and 2020. Since the pandemic…

As stated in the report,

Education can only fulfill its promise as the great equalizer – a force that can overcome differences in privilege and background – when we work to ensure that students are in school every day and receive the supports they need to learn and thrive.

 We have to be careful not to be lulled into a false sense of accomplishment and security by percentages. An attendance rate above 90% sounds high; we give an ‘A’ to things that are over 90%. But 92% attendance means that an individual student missed 3 weeks of school. An average attendance rate of 92%, likely skewed by students with 0-2 days absent per year, is even more ominous.

And it’s not just students. Teacher absence is also an area of concern. One of the last exciting projects that I worked on before retiring from full-time work at the end of 2019 was helping a state accountability team that was trying to pull data from a variety of information systems to calculate the number (and percentage) of days that students and teachers were together in their assigned classroom. The project required several marathon weekend sessions, 12-hour days exchanging e-mails and data files with the super sharp data person on the state side as we tried to resolve business rules and very messy data. In other words, it was heaven. More importantly, it felt like a step in the right direction.

Why it Matters to Dig Beneath the Lazy Seat Time Rhetoric

 The reason that correctly identifying the problems to be solved matters is that solving the first three problems discussed above will likely go a long way to reducing chronic absenteeism. I can’t help but think that resolving those issues will result in students being more engaged with school, more likely to want to attend school, and more likely to be successful at whatever they are trying to accomplish through school.

And maybe, just maybe, getting students engaged and in school might lead to improved achievement.

Phew. That was Easy.

Of course, solving these problems won’t be easy, but neither is it impossible. And one thing I’m certain of is that we won’t solve anything by continuing to lump all of our woes together under the heading seat time. Fighting straw men and bogeymen can only get you so far.

Image by Taken from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

%d bloggers like this: