More School?

I have a lot of thoughts as a former kid (who lived for summer vacation each year and felt that that last day of school each June was a day of liberation) and more recently as a parent who used to dutifully send my kids to school as well.

Obama says American kids spend too little time in school, putting them at a disadvantage with other students around the globe. “Now, I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas… But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom.”

I sigh when I read this… one more progressive person (a very influential one in this case) buying into the idea that there is an OSFA (one size fits all) solution that can be applied to all kids. And the proposed solution is not something new and innovative, but doing more of a conventional regimen of instructional schooling that we’ve been doing for more than a hundred years that seems to be working less and less well as it is. With all due respect to the President and his team, this feels to me like grasping at straws.

“Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here,” Duncan told the AP. “I want to just level the playing field.”

So that is the argument that the Obama administration is basing their policy recommendation on, and yet the article goes on to say…

While it is true that kids in many other countries have more school days, it’s not true they all spend more time in school. Kids in the U.S. spend more hours in school (1,146 instructional hours per year) than do kids in the Asian countries that persistently outscore the U.S. on math and science tests — Singapore (903), Taiwan (1,050), Japan (1,005) and Hong Kong (1,013). That is despite the fact that Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong have longer school years (190 to 201 days) than does the U.S. (180 days).

So if kids in America are already spending more time in school, is this a fallacious argument based on mistaken conventional wisdom? Should we be doing something very different rather than advocating for more of the same and hoping for a different result?

“Our school calendar is based upon the agrarian economy and not too many of our kids are working the fields today,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

Good point I guess, but then our OSFA school schedule and curriculum is based on our early industrial economy that featured mass producing a few basic products rather than the niche marketing of our contemporary commercial world.

Regardless, there is a strong case for adding time to the school day. Researcher Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution looked at math scores in countries that added math instruction time. Scores rose significantly, especially in countries that added minutes to the day, rather than days to the year.

This to me sounds like more of that circular thinking that teaching to the test improves test score. I don’t believe that scores on standardized multiple-choice tests are a valid metric and certainly not the one to build a national program around.

The article cites the testimony of Dominique Toombs, a middle school student in Massachusetts whose school was part of a pilot program, who was initially concerned about the three extra hours of school per day because, “That’s three more hours I won’t be able to chill with my friends after school.” But after some time under the new regime she has changed her opinion, saying, “I’ve learned a lot”.

When I was in high school I spent three hours a day after school, usually five days a week, involved in an innovative youth theater program outside of school. If they had changed the rules to mandate three more hours of school each day, I would not have been able to participate in that program that was so transformational in my life.

Does Obama want every kid to do these things? School until dinnertime? Summer school? And what about the idea that kids today are overscheduled and need more time to play?

Yeah? What about that idea that kids have no time to play? What about that wisdom from developmental psychologists and early childhood educators that “Play is the work of children”? We adults seem to make a fetish of dressing and looking as youthful as possible while at the same time pushing real youths away from being themselves.

In the U.S., there are many examples of gains when time is added to the school day. Charter schools are known for having longer school days or weeks or years. For example, kids in the KIPP network of 82 charter schools across the country go to school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., more than three hours longer than the typical day. They go to school every other Saturday and for three weeks in the summer. KIPP eighth-grade classes exceed their school district averages on state tests.

Here is where I think the OSFA fallacy kicks in. These types of mega-instruction charter schools attract the kids and families that thrive in this sort of environment, so it makes sense they do well. But it is an erroneous OSFA leap of faith to think that this will work for everybody.

Summer is a crucial time for kids, especially poorer kids, because poverty is linked to problems that interfere with learning, such as hunger and less involvement by their parents. That makes poor children almost totally dependent on their learning experience at school…

Okay… finally… here is a real issue that we need to wrestle with as a society. Our country is laced with communities of mostly poor people, communities unsafe for kids to inhabit. This is a problem more real, in my opinion, than any of this stuff about American kids not having enough mandatory instruction.

Disadvantaged kids, on the whole, make no progress in the summer… Wealthier kids have parents who read to them, have strong language skills and go to great lengths to give them learning opportunities such as computers, summer camp, vacations, music lessons, or playing on sports teams.

So doesn’t it make better sense to focus on making available to every kid and their family that might want it optional YMCA-like summer and after-school programs (like my youth theater group), rather than mandating more school time for everyone.

Extra time is not cheap. The Massachusetts program costs an extra $1,300 per student, or 12 percent to 15 percent more than regular per-student spending, said Jennifer Davis, a founder of the program. It received more than $17.5 million from the state Legislature last year.

I’m having déjà vu here… We mandate something more. The funding becomes an issue dividing progressives from conservatives. No consensus emerges. The new program is underfunded, done half-ass at the cost of burnt out teachers and other public servants and somewhat promising but mostly ineffective results. Why do we as a society keep doing this to ourselves?… Ugh!

“Those hours from 3 o’clock to 7 o’clock are times of high anxiety for parents,” Duncan said. “They want their children safe. Families are working one and two and three jobs now to make ends meet and to keep food on the table”… The president… wants schools to add time to classes, to stay open late and to let kids in on weekends so they have a safe place to go.

Okay… this part makes sense. Let’s focus our public purse on building free YMCA’s everywhere where kids do not have a safe community to be outside school. Safer, more well-to-do communities can figure things out for themselves. How about that?

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