Educators Moving Away from Seat Time for Mastery-Based Education

Seat time
(Image credit: Pixabay)

In many districts across the U.S., thinking around seat time has evolved as a result of COVID-19. 

“The pandemic, although extremely difficult, has provided an amazing opportunity for us to think about education differently, specifically around items like seat time, or access to technology,” says Dr. Daniel Bittman superintendent of ISD 728 in Minnesota. 

That means focusing more on mastery of learning objectives rather than on how long a student is synchronously in class, whether online or in-person. 

Embracing this mindset has allowed the learners in Bittman’s district to be met wherever they're at, and to really excel.

“Our students who have done extremely well are able to embrace that technology and to explore things that they may not have been able to do previously,” Bittman says. “Our students who have struggled have been given more opportunities and more time to do that with less distractions.”

Thanks to the pandemic, most states have relaxed policies requiring students to complete a certain amount of in-person school days to complete the school year. Many of these policies are temporary, though a growing number of educators believe it is time to permanently revisit how we think about seat time. 

“COVID provided us with this clear evidence that time is an inappropriate measure for learning,” says Susan Patrick, president and chief executive officer of Aurora Institute, which advocates for competency based-learning. “States are grappling with how to determine attendance and award credit. And if we were determining attendance, and awarding credit, based on student engagement, students developing work products, by students showing us their learning, we would be in a much better place for teaching and learning.” 

Seat time is often linked to school funding, which can be an obstacle to moving away from the practice in many states. Sixteen states use Average Daily Membership (ADM) as an alternative to seat time. “This means the policy for funding a school is based on the state department counting the students enrolled in a school or program and funding per student, not on seat time,” Patrick says. 

The Aurora Institute released a guidance for determining seat time alternatives during the pandemic. 

Seat Time Issues  

In 1994, the National Education Commission on Time and Learning released Prisoners of Time, a report that called for U.S. educators to move away from a seat time-based learning model. The report noted, “For the past 150 years, American public schools have held time constant and let learning vary.” 

More than two-and-a-half decades later, seat time remains a major component of education in most districts, however, some districts are starting to change. 

“We estimate that 6 percent of public school districts in the U.S. are trying to shift from seat time and traditional forms of learning to more competency-based pathways that are personalized,” Patrick says. “It's really time for our K through 12 educational system, and states and districts, to rethink how students earn credit. A measure of time does not translate into a measure of learning.” 

When Patrick meets with educators from other parts of the world, they are consistently surprised by the important role seat time continues to play in U.S. education, she says. 

How To Rethink Seat Time  

The Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin began prioritizing personalized learning more than a decade ago. Currently, two of the district’s high schools are far along in their competency-based efforts and have waivers from the state’s seat time requirements. 

Dr. Theresa Ewald, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for the district, advises school leaders exploring making similar changes to get comfortable outside their comfort zones. 

“If you're uncomfortable, you're doing the right work,” she says. “It's finding that sweet spot of uncomfortable.” 

Ewald’s children attended the district’s schools, which has given her the chance to experience the advantages of mastery-based education not just as an educator but as a parent.

“My daughter, who’s actually now a teacher, when she was in one of our high schools, she finished geometry in three or four months,” Ewald says. “Then she started her Algebra II credit and that took her 18 months.” 

Ewald’s daughter was rewarded for her skill with geometry and was not penalized for taking longer to learn Algebra II on her transcript, but the importance of the experience went deeper than that, Ewald says. “It's a culture of her understanding that that's okay, like that's how life is, some stuff’s easy and some stuff’s not. That's a great lesson. If every high school kid leaves with that, that might be more important than Algebra II.” 

Ewald adds, “The seat time requirement and traditional structure suggests kids come in as empty vessels. We know that's not true, and so let's honor what kids already know and not make them sit through the learning of something they already know. If you want to disengage a 15-year-old, that'll do it.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.