Research & Commentary: Seat Time

Published December 6, 2013

“Seat time” is an often-overlooked aspect of education policy. Seat time refers to the academic hours a student has spent in the classroom during a school year, not what students have learned or failed to learn. 

Advocates of seat time requirements argue schools should pass students to the next grade regardless of their retention of the material taught, in order to keep students with peers of the same age group and promote the child’s self-esteem. However, focusing on seat time allows students to earn credits, pass classes, and even receive a diploma without obtaining knowledge and skills. 

Thirty-six states have recognized the problems caused by seat time policies and now give districts and schools the autonomy to grant students’ academic credit based on academic proficiency instead of the amount of time spent in a classroom. Only New Hampshire, however, requires high schools to award credits based on competency. The other 35 states only encourage schools to use this method or have granted them waivers from the statewide seat time policy. 

Seat time policies prevent a student from progressing through school on their own time. While some students end up passing classes without actually learning the material, gifted students are forced to waste valuable time because they must wait until the end of the school year to move on to more advanced studies. 

Digital learning, by contrast, involves competency-based learning where students progress once they show mastery of a concept. Seat time policies hinder the expansion and operation of digital learning by valuing time spent on a subject rather than actual knowledge acquired. 

In 2010, states spent an estimated $3.7 billion on remedial education services to students; a significant portion of this could be avoided if students progressed through grades only when they were sufficiently prepared. 

More states should consider practicing differentiated pacing methods and take into account the varied pace at which students learn and keep in mind that education should not be one-size-fits-all. Education researcher Herbert Walberg describes differential pacing as follows: “students advance according to the knowledge they have acquired as demonstrated by progressively more difficult tests rather than ‘seat time.'” 

The following documents offer more information about seat time requirements.

State Strategies for Awarding Credit to Support Student Learning
The National Governors Association recognizes the nation’s education system is failing to produce the highly skilled workforce needed to compete in the global economy. This report questions seat time requirements many states impose and suggests this practice is one of the underlying problems contributing to the poor current state of education. 

Transformational Innovations
This report by Herbert J. Walberg suggests ways to improve education practices and increase learning effectiveness without increasing costs. Among other findings, Walberg compares the results of differential pacing methods versus the use of seat time. 

Reinvention, Not Reforms: Current School Structures Are Obsolete
The current K-12 education system is not producing students who possess the skills and knowledge required to succeed in college. The slow pace of change in education implies a new approach is needed, and this paper calls for innovation in K-12 education. 

Rethinking “Seat Time:” State Approaches to Earning Credit in Out-of-School Time
Many states are rethinking the traditional ways children earn education credits. States are moving away from “seat time,” which focuses on the time a child spends in the classroom, to policies that measure competency. 

Beyond Seat Time: Advancing Proficiency-Based Learning
To fully access the breadth of possibilities that digital learning has to offer and take advantage of technology, traditional schooling models have to be questioned, writes David Nagel. He discusses whether education could do without the traditional school year and the feasibility of shifting to a system of student advancement based solely on proficiency. He then explores what it will take to accomplish these reforms. 

Trends in Seat-Time vs. Competency-Based Policy
Austin Pace of the American Youth Policy Forum argues seat time does not facilitate student progress and creates barriers to learning for nontraditional students, fast learners, and students with disabilities. 

Strengthening High School Teaching and Learning in New Hampshire’s Competency-Based System
The Alliance for Excellent Education examines the move of New Hampshire schools toward competency-based learning and away from seat time, explaining why and how New Hampshire made the change, and what the system looks like now.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at  

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Joy Pullmann at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].