The Latest Academic Cant in Virginia Schools: “Learning Is Not Time Bound”

Jason Van Heukelum

by James A. Bacon

Standards may be eroding in Virginia public schools, but there is at least one metric that educators generally agree is critically important: attendance. That consensus is built on the common-sense premise that students probably won’t learn much in the way of reading, math and history if they don’t friggin’ go to school! Showing up doesn’t guarantee positive results, but not showing up pretty much guarantees negative results.

It does not take a PhD in education to understand this. An idea once relegated to the fringe of progressive philanthropic foundations is insinuating itself into the real world of Virginia’s public school systems. The new view can be seen in a written statement by Winchester schools Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum, as reported by The Winchester Star.

“We intentionally embraced an opportunity that was presented by the pandemic to show our students and families that learning is not time-bound.”

“The freedom and flexibility for our students and families has led to a new culture that promotes competency based learning not ‘seat time,’” Van Heukelum wrote. “Our students have used this extra time to work, to volunteer, and pursue a myriad of passions outside of the traditional school structure. This opportunity has been priceless and something we strongly support and see as a lasting positive impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Well, yes, I suppose it is possible to learn something by taking a menial job, volunteering, or even watching television or playing computer games “outside the traditional school structure.” But it’s a good bet that kids doing those things are not mastering algebraic equations, learning an advanced vocabulary, making presentations, or developing other skills required to function at a higher cognitive level in a knowledge-based economy.

Most would agree that some students can grow academically without entering school classrooms. Home schoolers do it. Some students with disabilities thrive online. Half or more of the general school population have done just fine under school lockdowns. But only when they apply themselves — when they put in the “seat time” at home. But roughly a fifth of Virginia’s students, usually those most at academic risk to begin with, don’t put in the seat time at home, and they have not fared well.

Fortunately, some educators still embrace common sense.

“To me, the purpose of marking and monitoring attendance is it’s an early warning sign, because if kids experience absences then it could mean that something is happening and someone needs to check in on the child and family and they need extra support,” said Hedy Change, executive director of Attendance Works, which aims to close equity gaps by reducing chronic absence, as quoted by the Winchester Star.

Chang cited research showing that students missing 10% or more of their classes were likely off-track for foundational skills by the third grade. Fortunately, Virginia is one of the 31 states that require the taking of daily attendance.

Winchester Public Schools implemented a “participation matrix” during the COVID-afflicted 2020-21 school year, which required teachers to notify administrators every two weeks which students weren’t participating so they could receive support from the Office of Student Services, The Winchester Times reports.

The question, says Chang, is whether reporting every two weeks is frequent enough. “If you’re doing it every two weeks, a kid could be gone for quite a bit of those two weeks before anyone takes action.”

I don’t believe school systems should strong-arm high school kids into attending schools they have no interest in. Having fallen behind academically, they’re not learning much, and they tend to disrupt the classroom experience of others. But that’s a very different thing from pretending that they are learning anything useful when they’re playing hooky, or even if they’re doing something socially productive like cleaning tables or delivering meals to the elderly.

Are Van Heukelum’s comments quoted in the Winchester newspaper representative of his thinking or were they taken out of context? I don’t know. I am reluctant to criticize him based on a single article. But if the Winchester school superintendent truly believes that “learning is not time-bound” — if he fails to acknowledge the powerful connection between how much a kid learns academically and how much time he devotes to that learning — then I shudder for the future of Winchester’s school children.