When Learning Improves by Leaving the Classroom

Question: What line of work is organized the same way as a typical high school, with time blocks, assigned for specific subjects, for approximately 180 days, over four years, with no flexibility?

Having trouble finding an answer? There aren't many, with the exception of our prison system.

High school is not the same as prison -- though some students may disagree -- but the high regimentation of the day contributes to some obvious problems: boredom, artificial separation of subject content, and inconsistent quality of the learning experience.

In his recent comments to the American Enterprise Institute, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proposed that the impending school budget cuts be an opportunity to reform wasteful practices. One item Secretary Duncan listed was prescriptive seat time. He pointed out that defining education by how much time is spent learning instead of how much is learned has never made instructional sense. The idea represents a factory model that no longer applies to the modern world and has more to do with issues of accounting and custodial care.

In a climate that demands big changes, eliminating ineffective practices should be straightforward. That is, if we have an effective alternative. Eliminating seat time simply to save costs would likely lead to negative results such as reduced instructional opportunities, fewer educational options, and less support for students. If done with imagination and by redirecting financial resources, eliminating seat time can drive innovation, create more instructional options, and offer students stimulating opportunities.

An alternative with proven impact on student learning is workplace learning. A 2008 study by MDRC shows that when students have the benefit of activities such as job shadowing, mentoring by professionals, career fairs, and internships, there are strong positive labor market impacts. (Students with these experiences went on to earn 11 percent more each year in the eight years following high school than their peers who did not participate in career academies.) Beyond that, the National Academy Foundation's experience has been that workplace learning is a powerful force in lifting student attitudes and classroom performance.

Take Christopher Chametsky, a recent graduate. Before joining the New Utrecht High School Academy of Hospitality and Tourism in Brooklyn, school was the last place Christopher wanted to be. The experience at his internship at the Marriott Marquis hotel changed his perspective. "Instead of being at a place I dreaded, school became the direct line between me and the career I wanted." Christopher currently attends City College of Technology and plans to pursue a career in hotel management. "These experiences gave me real goals to work towards and real successes to feel good about."

High school students share the same desire as adults for purposeful and interesting learning experiences. Many teenagers feel detached from the high school learning experience because it's boring or seems meaningless. The workplace can provide an important context for academic learning, as well as promote behaviors that serve both college and careers.