The shutdown of America’s high schools has deprived millions of students of rites we previously took for granted. Coursework can be transferred online to some degree, but no virtual environment can replace football games, choir concerts, musicals, and so much more that’s part of the American high school experience. We may continue to yearn for such things well into the autumn, especially in communities that face additional closures, and where public officials want students and educators to stay “socially distant” even when at school. Say goodbye to Friday Night Lights.
Yet while there’s much to rue about what the pandemic has taken away, it’s possible to glimpse a future in which technology liberates high school students—or at least some of them—from the six or seven-hour school day that has been crushing teenage souls for generations. That’s worth celebrating because so much of the school day amounts to wasted time.
Students only learn when they are focused, engaged and putting in effort. Yet surveys have long shown that teenagers spend most of their day bored, zoned out, and only pretending to listen. For many students—especially the most motivated ones—they’d be better off, not to mention happier, if they spent much more of their time reading, writing and completing projects than going through the motions in our industrial-style schools.
For decades, the organization of the school day has followed a stultifying routine. High school seniors force themselves to get up at the crack of dawn and sleepwalk their way to first-period by 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. They then slog through six or seven forty-five minute classes, and finally leave school at 2:30 or 3:00, ready at last to do something self-directed: play sports, head to band or theater, or go to jobs. In theory, everyone tackles at least some homework before falling asleep and then repeating the daily grind.
But then something wonderful happens in the lives of teenagers: They go to college and the chains drop away. Their in-person class time drops to fifteen hours a week, even with a full course load. Just three hours a day! But in return, they’re expected to do loads of independent work, participate in group projects, and show up for office hours if they need additional help. In recent years, college students have also been watching some lectures online so class time can be spent on small-group discussions and doing hands-on laboratory work.
All this raises an obvious question: Why can’t our high schools look more like college? Does every high school course really need to meet in person, every day, given the technology available to us? What if kids could choose an every-other-day schedule, where they attend class in person on even days and stay home (or work from the school library or computer lab or do an apprenticeship) on odd days? Or they select a morning or afternoon schedule rather than attending all day long?
At least for the upcoming fall semester, moving to Half-Time High will be a necessity. The only way for schools to maintain social distance in crowded buildings is to operate well below capacity. This may mean running two shifts a day, morning and afternoon, or asking kids to show up in person every other day. If we don’t want kids to learn half as much, that means continuing with online learning—and lots more independent study—while at home.
If done right, these disruptions could introduce some long-overdue reforms in the way high school is structured. It’s a safe bet that many teenagers would welcome the chance to take their classes from, say, 11:30 to 2:30, then do their sports or other extra-curriculars, then do homework into the wee hours, and sleep in the next morning. That last part is particularly important, given the growing pile of research studies showing the danger of sleep deprivation to the adolescent brain. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends later start times—both to improve academic achievement, but also to cut down on car accidents and more. And indeed, when Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina moved the school schedule back, test scores rose significantly.
This pre-college model would undoubtedly work best for the most motivated students and those who enjoy working independently. At first, schools might offer teenagers the opportunity to apply for an alternative schedule, and select those whose teachers think they can handle it. If schools let the class size for these hybrid courses be a bit larger than average, it could allow more personal attention for lower-achieving students who continue with the traditional schedule, or for students with disabilities or English language learners. All without adding any cost to the school. This could be an important new form of educational choice.
To be sure, we would need to put guardrails in place to ensure that kids who are only at school half of the time aren’t getting half of the learning. The best solution is to make students demonstrate that they have mastered the material. Advanced Placement courses—with their high bar for rigor, and their well-respected end-of-year assessments—would be ideal candidates. Other forms of “competency-based education” could work as well, such as asking students to tackle real-world projects or write a senior thesis.
As with so many things in K–12 education, the major barrier to this innovation is outdated policy and deeply ingrained habit. Every state requires students to attend school in person for a certain number of hours or days a year, and most fund their schools based at least in part on how many kids show up each day. Those systems would need to be reworked long term, just as they have been during the current crisis.
But where there’s a will there’s a way, and in this case, the coronavirus is providing not just the will but also the “shall.” Half-Time High is coming. We should try to keep it going once the pandemic recedes.
Editor’s note: This article was first published by Bloomberg.