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The 9% Challenge: Education in School and Society

by Lauren A. Sosniak - May 06, 2001

At graduation from high school, a youth would have spent, at most, 9% of his or her lifetime in school. Given the low dose of schooling in relation to the lives children and youth live outside of school, we can hardly justify holding schools essentially responsible for what students know and can do, or for what they don't know and can't do. Although more school, and school- plus-school (for example, on weekends and during the summers), are the typical responses to the current limits we must acknowledge, I contend they are not necessarily the most appropriate or helpful for our children or our society. Instead, I suggest that we consider two alternatives. First, we might reinvent education as society's mission, in and outside of school, and develop policies, practices, funding streams and mechanisms for accountability consistent with this altered vision. Second, we might reinvent schooling, too; we would need to identify the unique mission of schools, and develop appropriate expectations regarding what schools might do in the 9% of youth time allotted to them.

According to a government estimate, by the age of 18, youth have spent 9% of their lifetimes in school (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.) Should we take this figure seriously? And if so (a conclusion you can be certain I will draw), what might it mean for school and society?

The U.S. Department of Education is not alone in its estimate of the time children spend in school. Jackson (1968) considers school time relatively easy to compute:

The amount of time children spend in school can be described with a fair amount of quantitative precision, although the psychological significance of the numbers involved is another matter entirely. In most states the school year legally comprises 180 days. A full session on each of those days usually lasts about 6 hours (with a break for lunch), beginning somewhere around nine o'clock in the morning and ending about three o'clock in the afternoon. Thus, if a student never misses a day during the year, he spends a little more than 1000 hours under the care and tutelage of teachers. If he has attended kindergarten and was reasonably regular in his attendance during the grades, he will have logged a little more than seven thousand classroom hours by the time he is ready for junior high school (p. 5).

If we take Jackson's number at face value, a twelve year old thus might, at best, have spent a little more than 6 1/2% of his or her lived hours in school (8,760 hours in a year; 105,120 hours in twelve years; 7,000 hours in school). Extending the math for several more years, school time would account for nearly 8 1/2% of an 18 year old's life.

The point to this accounting is to give us a measure of educational possibilities in and outside of school. Jackson considers the amount of time spent in school to be significant:

[A]side from sleeping, and perhaps playing, there is no other activity that occupies as much of the child's time as that involved in attending school. Apart from the bedroom (where he has his eyes closed most of the time) there is no single enclosure in which he spends a longer time than he does in the classroom (p. 5).

Indeed, from Jackson's psychological perspective, this time may be significant. But, from the standpoint of opportunity to learn, it seems that schooling must be understood as a weak intervention, a low dose of education. Home, community, and larger societal influences have much more leverage over the education of our children and youth than school ever could. Holding schools altogether accountable for what students know and can do is a folly.

Of course the 91% of the lives of youth that lies outside of school is not and could never be available in its entirety for educative activity. We need to account for time to sleep, eat, bathe, and play, at a minimum. We also need to acknowledge that some out-of-school time is devoted to homework, adding to the influence of schools beyond the regular school hours.

But even as we chip away at the educative possibilities of time out-of-school, we also must recognize that all school hours are not devoted entirely to educative activity. There is attendance taking, lunch money collecting, time for taking books and materials out and putting books and materials away, and, at least in many elementary schools, time spent lining up. There are countless short school days and school weeks --for teacher professional development, parent meetings, and so forth. Even during time for lessons, teachers are not always 'on-task;' and even when teachers are working to focus the class on academic matters, the students themselves are not always on task.

The amount of time devoted to learning in school becomes more problematic when we consider the diversity of aims that schools work toward achieving. Schools are supposed to teach math, science, social studies, and geography; reading, writing and literature; driver's education and health education; art and music, and much more. School time distributed among the many academic subjects and other school concerns leaves little time for any one of them. Given the limited time for school learning, and the diversity of school aims, it is no wonder that students inevitably 'don't know' what some adult thinks they should know about something or other.

Schools as the Answer for All Our Aims and Aspirations?

Given the low dose of schooling in relation to the lives children and youth lead outside of school, how did it happen that schools have come to be held responsible for what students know and can do, and, even more importantly, for what they don't know and can't do? The answer, in short, is that Dewey did it. At least that is the account that noted historian Lawrence Cremin (1965) gives.

In the early pages of The Genius of American Education, Cremin traces the idea of popular education from Plato's Republic to Dewey's Democracy and Education. He argues that Plato was concerned with the community that educates: "all the influences that mold the mind and character of the young" (Cremin, 1965, p. 4). This broad vision seems to have held for many years, across continents. But, according to Cremin, John Dewey made a subtle but important shift in educational thought. Here is Cremin's summary of Dewey's move:

[H]e advances the characteristic complaint of early twentieth-century progressives: industrialism is destroying the traditional home, shop, neighborhood, and church; they are no longer performing their educational functions; some other institution must take on these functions; ergo --and here, Dewey takes the grand jeté of twentieth-century educational theory-- the school must do so. By the middle of the book, Dewey is talking about the public school as society's great instrument for shaping its own destiny. Public education has become coextensive with the education of the public (pp. 8-9).

There can be little argument that today we do hold schools accountable for the education of the public. It seems that we ask schools to address nearly every social, economic, or moral issue we face as a society. When we worry about teen pregnancy, the spread of AIDS, automobile accidents, or the economic and social divide between the have's and the have-not's, we ask schools to intervene. Alan Greenspan recently proclaimed that "increasing basic financial education at the elementary and secondary school level is essential" (Bloomberg News, 2001).

Over and over we add to the expectations for schools, including, of course, the ever increasing academic expectations that extend from all knowledge past to all knowledge we imagine will be important for the future. Currently we ask: Why don't our students know the name of the American general at Yorktown, for example, or who was president when the U.S. purchased the Panama Canal? ("History 101," 2000). We ask: Why don't our students know why fusion is not currently being used in reactors as an energy source? (U.S. TIMSS National Research Center, n.d.). Perhaps a better question would be to ask: How have students managed to learn so much in so little time?

Although families, television and radio, community organizations and institutions, and businesses clearly have more influence over youth than schools can in their 9% contribution to youth lives, schools are easy targets for our expectations and aspirations. It is easier, for example, to legislate school requirements than to legislate educational requirements for families or even for libraries, community organizations, or national corporations. It is easier to generate political support for increasing expectations for youth (who are not eligible to vote) than for adults (who can vote, and who can marshal dollars to challenge any expectations placed on them or their organizations). Schools are accessible for policy and politics in ways that most other aspects of our lives are not. Their accessibility notwithstanding, there is no excuse for holding schools more responsible for education than we hold society at large.

Learning Outside of School

The silliness of holding schools responsible for everything youth know and don't know is challenged routinely by the enormous amount of learning that obviously takes place outside of school. What we learn outside of school is sometimes consistent with school goals, sometimes inconsistent with school goals, and sometimes neither consistent nor inconsistent but, rather, independent of school goals.

For the more advantaged children and youth, especially, education out-of-school frequently is consistent with school goals, perhaps in ways that make schools appear to add more value to students' lives than we should credit to the schools. Young children in many homes learn to count and to recite the alphabet before they enter school. They learn colors and shapes, nursery rhymes, and the idea that books are read from left to right. They come to school with vocabularies that support work across the school subjects. Over the years they learn, outside of school, about geography, history (what mom or dad did in the 60s or grandpa did in World War II), science and economics. They come prepared for school learning (bringing paper and pencils, rulers, and appropriate ideas about school work) and school testing (sometimes with many hours of practice supplied by or paid for by their parents). In many homes children and youth are introduced to books, newspapers and magazines-- and the bodies of knowledge that come with these resources. In these and many other ways learning in and outside of school often are so linked we can't tell where one ends or the other begins.

Of course children and youth also acquire knowledge and skill outside of school that is inconsistent with school goals. They learn language and language patterns inconsistent with school aims; they learn about sex, drugs and grunge music and dress; they learn about gangs and guns. In some homes students learn to devalue school -- as irrelevant to their lives outside of school, or as trivial in comparison with their educational experiences outside of school. Just as there is considerable overlap in some respects between learning in and outside of school, there also sometimes are considerable tensions between the two.

Children and youth also learn much outside of school that is neither consistent nor inconsistent with school goals, but, rather, independent of school goals. Children and youth learn to use a microwave oven, a vcr, a Nintendo Gameboy, and a Sony PlayStation. They learn to swim, play the piano, ride bicycles, and download popular music from the internet. They learn to identify and resolve problems when a family computer crashes, eat and cook a variety of foods, and relate to and care for brothers and sisters. They learn to read and recite sports statistics, fix leaking faucets, coordinate colors and patterns, deal with public agencies, and so much more. Much of what we know and can do in daily life probably is learned outside of school and independent of school goals.

No educator would deny the power and importance of education both in and out of school; yet it is almost always only schooling that makes the newspapers, candidate stump speeches, and legislative schedules. And we have learned to speak about education in ways that privilege schooling and devalue everything else. School learning is "deliberate," according to Dewey (1916/1944), rather than "incidental;" it is "directed" according to Bobbitt (1918), rather than "undirected." It is easy to slip into thinking about education as a function of schooling, rather than thinking more accurately about schooling as a subcategory of education writ large.

It is time that we face the real challenge of the education of children and youth: 9% takes place in school and the rest takes place outside of school. If we were to take this challenge seriously, what might it mean for educational policy and practice?

More School?

A most obvious response to the 9% challenge is that we need more school. We need more school days each year, longer school hours each school day, and maybe even another (fifth) year of high school for (so it is claimed) students who are unprepared to enter the workforce. We are reminded that Japanese youth spend more time in school (nine hours a day, 240 days a year) than American youth (less than 6 hours a day, 180 days a year) (Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1992, p. 32); we use this time difference to help explain differences in international test scores.

The 'more school' argument includes recommendations for what might be called school-plus-school: afterschool programs run by and at school, Saturday programs, and summer school programs especially for students who have not been particularly successful in school during the regular school year. Each of these forms of 'more school' is intended to assist students further in meeting school goals.

Although the 'more school' response is an obvious one to the 9% challenge, it may not be the most appropriate or helpful for our children and youth or for our society. Do we really want the education of our youth ever more tightly linked to a single institution, separate physically and purposefully from much of our American society, tied to a thin vision of what is important for all youth to know and be able to do? This hardly sounds appealing.

It not only sounds unappealing to add significantly to school time, it also sounds like an unrealistic approach to increasing student learning. Are students who have struggled with, say, school mathematics, after 45 minutes of work each day for 180 days a year and 12 years of their lives, suddenly, in a summer program or a year more of school, going to reach our expectations for them? Unless the nature of school learning were to change dramatically, it does not seem reasonable to assume that adding hours or days or even years will alter the effects of school on students who have been relatively unsuccessful after multiple years in our classrooms.

There are alternatives to the idea of more school; in the following sections of this article I would like to suggest two. First, we can reinvent education as society's mission. We can rethink the idea of education of our children and youth to include both school and out-of-school time, and develop policies, practices, and funding streams consistent with this altered vision. Second, we can reinvent schooling, too; we can identify the unique mission of schools, and develop appropriate expectations regarding what schools might do in the 9% of youth time allotted to them.

Reinventing Education as Society's Mission

The idea of reinventing education as society's mission is not mine originally or uniquely. Lawrence Cremin was one of its most persistent advocates. Again and again he wrote about the educative functions of various organizations and institutions, and called for holding those groups to "the same critical scrutiny from the standpoint of education" (1971, p. 220) to which we typically hold our schools. Cremin called on us "to acknowledge the diversity of curricula being defined and taught at any given time by a variety of groups, more or less professional in character, and the need to call such groups to a measure of public responsibility" (1971, p. 220).

Cremin called attention to the deliberate and systematic curricula of families, churches and synagogues, libraries, and Boy Scout troops (1976, p 22). He pointed to the curricula defined and taught by "the advertising agencies that serve the American Tobacco Company and the American Cancer Society... [and] the public relations counsels that serve the Democratic and Republican parties" (1971, p 220). And he wrote repeatedly and broadly about the curriculum of television and radio and the educative responsibilities of the media (cf., Cremin, 1965, 1971, 1976):

And by curriculum I refer not only to programs labeled educational but also to news broadcasts and documentaries (which presumably inform), to commercials (which teach people to want), and to soap operas (which reinforce common myths and values) (Cremin, 1976, p. 22).

Cremin called on us to recognize and specify the educative functions of all our organizations and institutions, formal and informal. He called on us to build "a theory of education [that] is the theory of the relation of various educative interactions and institutions to one another and to the society at large" (1976, p. 24). He called on us to set expectations for deliberate education across our life contexts. Cremin's calls have gone largely unheeded.

Cremin's argument continues only very quietly. Ellen Lagemann (1993) has asserted that "[d]eveloping a less school-centric vocabulary will enrich the public policy options available to us" (p. 681). Maxine Greene (2000) suggests that "[c]ollaborations now vaguely anticipated will become commonplace. Churches, neighbourhood groups, clubs, informal organizations of many kinds may be playing parts in the construction of new traditions and new curricula" (p. 269). But this is not an argument that should remain in the background of education conversations. We need to acknowledge loudly and clearly the limits of schooling and the educative responsibilities of our entire society.

Educational policies made by federal and state departments of education need to attend to education that takes place in and out of school. We need to challenge politicians who confuse schooling with education and who create educational demands and expectations for schools but not for other publicly regulated institutions and organizations. If education is a national priority, then we cannot limit reports on educational efforts and accomplishments to what takes place inside school walls.

We need to be asking how each of the various communities of practice within our society might be held accountable for both the intentional and unintentional education they are offering. Might banking and financial institutions hold some responsibility and accountability for the economic education of our children and youth, and food industries hold some responsibility for health and science education? Might the housing industry hold some responsibility for educating children and youth about safety and craftsmanship in housing construction; should energy providers hold some responsibility for educating about our energy needs and expectations and the sources available for meeting these currently and in the future? And when our various national societies worry about the education of our children and youth -- be it about geography, mathematics, the stewardship of our lands, or the protection of human or animal rights-- ought they be asking schools to serve their visions, or ought they be asking themselves whether they are doing enough, and enough of the right things, in the service of the education of the public?

In other words, we need to find ways to move our educational expectations well beyond expectations for schools. I am not calling for increased funding or in-kind materials or services for our schools from the other elements of our society. This merely makes schools more responsible, albeit with conditions attached to what they should do and how they should do it. (And these conditions seem too frequently to serve the supporting business or organization better than they serve the needs and thoughtful purposes of our schools). The point is not to provide more direct material support for our schools from business and community sources (although of course I would not argue against more unrestricted material support for our schools); the point is to provide more and better public education as an expected part of our lives in society.

Neither am I calling for more volunteerism; that too misses the point. The education of our children and youth should not rely on the good will of good people, but, rather, should be a matter of societal expectation and obligation. We need to find ways to ask what our communities, corporations, media, and all of our organizations and institutions are doing to promote the development of readers, writers, historians, scientists, artists, musicians, designers and craftspersons. Schools cannot do this work alone, in the 9% of the time allotted to them. If this is only 'school work,' it is hard to imagine that our students will see it as a meaningful part of their lives and their futures.

Maxine Greene (1989) has written that "people are more likely to ... choose or to adopt standards if they see themselves as members of a community marked by certain commitments and always in the process of renewing itself" (p. 11). Our challenge, then, is to create a society marked by commitments to the continuing development of knowledge, skill, discipline and perspective -- a society that educates its children and youth as they live and learn in and outside of school. This is a challenge that calls for not just words, but deeds. It calls for policies, practices, funding streams and mechanisms for accountability that involve all of our organizations and institutions, formal and informal, in the education of the public.

Nothing I have written here is intended as an excuse for the accomplishments (and lack of accomplishments) of our schools. Rather, my aim has been to reinvigorate Cremin's (1965) argument:

My point is that all these agencies educate the public, and no serious discussion of contemporary educational policy can afford to ignore them. I am not arguing that schools are uninfluential or that all this education is of equal worth. I am simply urging that those who call themselves educators bear in mind the total education of the public and the many agencies that carry it on (p. 14).

Of course schools are, or can be, influential. That is the subject to which I turn next.

Reinventing Schooling for a Focussed and Unique Mission

If our vision of public education included education that took place in families, within communities, through media, and in contacts with the many and varied organizations and institutions of our society, we would be able to engage in a thoughtful conversation about what schools could and should be expected to accomplish in the 9% of time allotted to them. We could turn with an altered vision to "questions of definition, scope, and priority" (Cremin, 1971, p. 220). We could work to identify the unique mission of our schools, and the relation of schooling to our larger educational efforts.

Of course we do, already, define priorities for our schools, subtly at least. As Elliot Eisner (2000) notes, although the vision statement for almost any of our school districts "will provide a display of ambitious ideals that it is claimed reside at the core of that district's purposes....[o]ur aspirations simply do not match what we look for to determine whether or not we have been effective" (p. 346). The standardized tests we use and publicize widely in discussions about students' and school districts' accomplishments reflect our priorities (and in turn further shape our priorities). Typically we test a version of reading and language ability, and mathematical knowledge and skill. We pay virtually no attention to a variety of other subject matters or, especially, to the habits of mind we profess to cultivate such as initiative, critical reasoning, citizenship and civic responsibility.

It may be that as we focus on the unique mission and responsibility of our schools, the tests we use will fit well with the priorities we eventually agree on. For the moment, I am inclined toward the more ambitious but still focussed vision Cremin (1965) offers:

[W]hat the school is uniquely equipped to do, given the range of agencies that educate, is to make youngsters aware of the constant bombardment of facts, opinions, and values to which they are subjected; to help them question what they see and hear; and, ultimately, to give them the intellectual resources they need to make judgments and assess significance (pp. 22-23).

A detailed discussion about the unique mission of our schools goes well beyond my agenda here. And that is as it should be. Such a discussion needs to take place among professional educators, informed laymen, and members of our society more generally. It will be a difficult conversation to be sure, but such discussion is definitely not impossible. The work of the Exploratory Committee on Assessing the Progress of Education (ECAPE), the forerunner of what is now the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), demonstrates both the importance of such discussions and the possibilities.

In an effort to develop instruments and procedures for assessing educational progress (by which they really meant school progress), ECAPE, under the direction of Ralph Tyler, established three criteria for the objectives to be used as a basis for assessment. "They should be objectives (a) that the school currently is seeking to attain, (b) that scholars in the field consider authentic to their discipline, and (c) that thoughtful laymen consider important for American youth to learn" (Merwin and Womer, 1969, pp. 314-315). And in the process of working though the development of instruments, ECAPE involved "thoughtful laypersons actively interested in education" in discussions with professional educators and test developers. ECAPE understood the importance of a focussed vision for schooling and the importance of attending to a wide range of voices in the development of this vision.

For too long our schools have been held accountable for too much, with too little acknowledgment of the responsibilities of the rest of society. Schools have lost their focus; they have no animating vision. We no longer know what business the schools are in, as they struggle to be all things to all people. What educative responsibilities can and should be assigned to schools as their principal functions? What can schools offer that children and youth are unlikely to be able to find elsewhere, even in an educationally committed society? What can schools offer children and youth that might help them take better advantage of their educative experiences and opportunities outside of school? The 9% of time that children and youth spend in school settings needs to be thoughtfully focussed if it is to be well spent.

"Risk and Opportunity in the Nonschool Hours"

To say that schools are not sufficient as educative institutions is not to suggest any necessary shortcomings of these institutions. It is only to recognize the place of schools in individuals' lives. Schools are important but limited institutions serving the education of the public. Even if schools were enormously successful in the tasks they set for themselves and the tasks others set for them, the "risk and opportunity in the nonschool hours" (Carnegie Corporation, 1992) is far too substantial to leave unaccounted for and unaccountable. If the education of children and youth is viewed primarily as a school responsibility, we offer a weak intervention that shortchanges both our students and our society. If the education of children and youth is viewed primarily as a societal responsibility, we can set ever higher standards across a broader range of settings, including schools, and actually hope to achieve them. Our children and youth will benefit, and our society will benefit.

A change from assumptions about public schooling as the setting for shaping society's destiny to assumptions about education broadly distributed is not likely to take place quickly or easily. Probably it must grow from both top-down policy and bottom-up grassroots activism. Undoubtedly it will require the support of enlightened legislators and foundation officers, and assertive school-based leaders who stand up against being scapegoats for society's unrealized hopes and ambitions. It will require sophisticated analyses of how and in what ways society's institutions and organizations, including the media and 500 largest businesses in America, might be held to enforceable educational obligations in our society beyond merely paying taxes to support our schools. That change won't be easy doesn't mean we shouldn't begin arguing for it, begin proposing possibilities, begin the conversation.

Society is our most powerful educator. Our collective organizations and institutions need to be held to account for our successes and failures with our children and youth. Schools hold a unique and important responsibility, and should be held accountable for the wise and effective use of the 9% of youth time allotted to them. But the answer to any question about what our children and youth know and don't know, and can or cannot do, cannot be laid solely or even most significantly at the doorsteps of our schools; it must be laid principally at the doorsteps of our society.


Bloomberg News (2001, April 7). Greenberg urges better money sense. New York Times.

Bobbitt, Franklin (1918). The Curriculum. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Carnegie Corporation of New York (1992). A Matter of Time: Risk and Opportunity in the Nonschool Hours. New York: Author.

Cremin, Lawrence A. (1965). The Genius of American Education. New York: Vintage Books.

Cremin, Lawrence A. (1971). Curriculum-making in the United States. Teachers College Record, 73(2), pp. 207-220.

Cremin, Lawrence A. (1976). Public Education. New York: Basic Books.

Dewey, John (1916/1944). Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan.

Eisner, Elliot W. (2000). Those who ignore the past ... : 12 'easy' lessons for the next millennium. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 32(2), 343-357.

Greene, Maxine (1989). The question of standards. Teachers College Record, 91(1), 9-14.

Greene, Maxine (2000). Imagining futures: the public school and possibility. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 32(2), 267-280.

History 101: Snoop Doggy Roosevelt (2000, July 2). New York Times Week in Review, p. 7

Jackson, Philip W. (1968). Life in Classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Lagemann, Ellen C. (1993). Parents -- A new keyword in education. Teachers College Record, 94(4), 677-681.

Merwin, Jack C. and Womer, Frank B. (1969). Evaluation in assessing the progress of education to provide bases of public understanding and public policy. In Ralph W. Tyler (Ed.), Educational Evaluation: New Roles, New Means. The Sixty-eighth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, Part II, pp. 305-334. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

U.S. Department of Education (n.d.). America 2000: An Education Strategy, Sourcebook. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. TIMSS National Research Center (n.d.). Released mathematics and Science Literacy Items, Population 3. East Lansing, MI: Author. see http://timss.bc.edu/TIMSS1/Items.html

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 06, 2001
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10756, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 10:05:43 PM

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About the Author
  • Lauren Sosniak
    San Jose State University
    E-mail Author
    Lauren Sosniak is a Professor of Teacher Education at San José State University. Her research emphasizes work in curriculum studies, including attention to curriculum enactment, curriculum theory, and talent development. Her recent publications include “Professional and subject matter knowledge for teacher education,” in Gary A. Griffin (Ed.) (1999), The Education of Teachers: Ninety-eighth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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