A Post-Pandemic Opportunity to Think Differently About Instructional Time

Don’t abandon newfound flexibility. Increase it.


The sudden shift to distance learning last year forced states across the country quickly to provide schools with flexibility around how they accounted for student attendance or “seat time” requirements. In his recent Education Next column, “Move to Trash: Five pandemic-era education practices that deserve to be dumped in the dustbin,” Michael Petrilli identified seat-time waivers as one of five pandemic-era practices which should be scrapped post-pandemic. While we agree that states must return to policies that ensure districts maximize the amount of time students spend on high-quality learning experiences, we also believe states must seize this unique moment to rethink the way in which they define instruction and credential learning. And some are doing just that.

Seat time policies and evidence of learning

State seat-time policies have long been a weak proxy for measuring what a student has learned. Under such policies, students are given course credit for spending a perquisite amount of time in class and receive a passing grade for doing so. This system serves learners, educators, and schools poorly.

The seat-time system constrains the ability of educators to meet their students where they are academically and to provide the necessary personalized supports to help students either accelerate to mastery or go deeper in the content. Some accounting for differences in student needs can take place under traditional seat-time requirements, but educators are generally locked into a specific and rigid academic pacing.

State definitions of instructional time also do not account for learning that occurs outside the four walls of the classroom. That may limit student opportunities to explore pathways of interest. In most states, instructional time definitions are tied to attendance policies that impact funding. If a state’s definition isn’t flexible enough to include learning opportunities that occur through distance education, or experiential learning opportunities like work-based learning, it could discourage schools from designing innovative approaches to meet the needs of their students and communities.

Moving from seat time to mastery

Instead of simply reimposing pre-pandemic seat-time policies, we hope that states use this moment to rethink how they award credit for evidence of learning and begin transitioning to a system based on mastery of content rather than time spent sitting in class. Basing evidence of learning on mastery does not mean less instructional time. Instead, it gives students and educators the opportunity to use time and differentiated supports to ensure students have mastered the same standards. It also maintains the quality of the traditional system. In a mastery-based system, educators and students use time more efficiently to ensure that every student is challenged throughout their day and receives the supports necessary to ensure readiness for success in college and careers.

Examples of states leading the way

Over the past year, we’ve already seen some states taking advantage of the lessons learned during the pandemic and reshaping their policies around how schools measure time and credential evidence of learning. For example, Montana passed legislation this spring that broadened the definition of instruction, allowing a school district to grant credit for coursework when pupils gain proficiency over course content or when they participate in on-the-job experiences. Arizona established a system for school districts to adopt their own unique instructional time models that satisfy the state’s existing requirements for attendance. And Washington took legislative steps to codify the recommendation of its Mastery-based Learning Workgroup, which included the creation of a new task force to examine the definitions of the credit hour and better align them with the state’s Profile of a Graduate.

As the pandemic recedes and schools return to normal operations, states have an opportunity to identify policies that hampered their ability to pivot quickly during the abrupt shift to distance learning. They must then consider how the flexibility provided temporarily can inform more permanent changes. Reimagining the use and measurement of time will liberate educators to begin basing evidence of learning on mastery rather than seat presence. It will empower schools to give their students access to a broader range of education experiences.

In a new report, “Evidence of Learning: How States are Rethinking Instructional Time and Attendance Policies in the COVID-19 Era,” we share additional state examples that can provide inspiration for continued momentum and innovation. We hope states don’t miss this valuable opportunity to reconsider how to award students credit for learning experiences. And we hope the states provide schools greater flexibility to design resilient, student-centered education systems.

Jonathan Alfuth is director of state policy at Knowledge Works.

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