11 March 2009

More Time Does Not Equal Better Education

One thing that jumped out while reading about President Obama’s address on education on Tuesday was his call for longer school days, longer school weeks, and longer school years. From the AP:
Obama also wants kids to spend more time in school, with longer school days, school weeks and school years — a position he admitted will make him less popular with his school-age daughters.

Children in South Korea spend a month longer in school every year than do kids in the U.S., where the antiquated school calendar comes from the days when many people farmed and kids were needed in the fields.

"I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas…" Obama said as the crowd laughed [because he had mentioned his daughters]. "But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom."

As I’ve written before, simply making a school day longer will not result in better educated children. Becoming educated takes time and effort, and both of those tend to be solo acts. As Dr. Seuss put it, “You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.” Forcing kids (notice that I did not use the word students) to stay in a school for longer periods will not equate to more work, more rigorous curricula, or better test scores. It would most certainly not transform restless, undisciplined, education-resistive kids into sponges for knowledge. If school days – let alone weeks or years – are to be increased by federal mandate, that increase in time must be accompanied by at least two other elements.

The first element would be to exclude students who do not show a disciplinary bent toward learning. What good would a longer school day be if it were largely disrupted by children who do not wish to be in school in the first place, who do not value their own education and have little to no self respect – let alone respect for those who have responsibility over them. But I do not expect this to come to pass. Education, after all, has become one of the many, many “rights” which permeate our society. The “right” to an education is a birth entitlement, and it is growing. As politicians and “activists” claim that even a college education is a birth right of all Americans, we can bid farewell to merit-based achievement in education. This can already be seen, somewhat, at the secondary education level, where a high school diploma is already seen as a “right,” an entitlement, of students (and parents) without much regard for actual achievement.

By making a longer school day a privilege instead of a “right” or federal mandate, local schools might get buy in from a very important piece of the puzzle – students. Parents could help foster this by engendering education as not just an important aspect of growing up, but the important aspect. There is a reason why South Korean kids are willing to spend longer days in the classroom, and it is not because the government tells them to. It is probably because parents expect them to; it is probably because parents expect their children to work as hard as they possibly can to achieve whatever level of education they are capable of. In pursuit of that, the students are willing (or compelled) to spend longer “sitting alone in a room” mastering material. A longer school day, by this logic, does not result in a better educated student, but is rather the result of a serious attitude toward education by parents and students, the combination of which may well result in the student reaching as close to his or her maximum potential as possible.

Whereas the first element is negative – the removal of some aspect – the second is positive. In order to not “waste” school time, any added time to the school day, week, or year must be well conceived. Simply making class periods longer by 15 minutes and thereby making the school day an hour longer (for a block-schedule school) would do nothing to promote better learning. Simply adding a week or two onto the school year would not result in better educated kids. Time is a limited commodity, and too much of it is wasted in schools already. Any additional time must be used to the students’ benefit, not to their comfort. For instance, if a “study hall” period were to be made mandatory, it would have to be monitored to ensure that kids weren’t simply sleeping, texting, or playing various games. If students were allowed into writing labs, those labs should not have internet access for the simple reason that internet access becomes an empty surfing “experience” all too often.

And yet, extra time in school need not necessarily result in students taking more classes. Valuable time “sitting alone in a room” while completing multiple iterations of required learning exercises – be they in math, science, history, or literature – only need a quiet, monitored place. Yet that alone would be a challenge in many schools. Thus, the first element is instrumental. In fact, it is instrumental now, in our current education model. More time in school would only make it more so.

It comes down to making education a thing to be sought after, an educated mind something for young people to aspire to. If education is seen more and more as a “right,” as an entitlement, all of the hours in a day will do little or nothing to change young attitudes.

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