29 September 2009

Another Push for More School Time

Originally posted at American Thinker.

In an article published on multiple website (Fox News link here), it appears that President Obama and Education Secretary Duncan are renewing the push for schools to be in session for more hours and perhaps more days. The overarching goal would supposedly be better educated high school graduates. But the list of reasons used to justify a longer school day, week, and/or year reads more like a brainstorming list -- hammered down and unrefined.

The first reason listed in the article, attributed to Mr. Duncan, is that the "school calendar is based upon the agrarian economy" and that simply does not fit with the modern world. Kids don't work in fields, so the idea of a summer vacation is antiquated.

Next up is that school children in other countries spend more time or more days in class. Here, Mr. Duncan would "level the playing field" by increasing the time American kids spend in school. Note the intimation of equality of outcome here. But as the article clearly illustrates, several countries in Asia -- those who might easily be cited as beating the pants off of the US in test scores -- actually have far less instructional time during a school year even though their students have more school days.

This point is key because it implies that students are expected to learn outside of school. It supposes that students are expected to do homework; they are expected to expend the blood, sweat, and tears on their own. The increased number of days, then, allows for more overall time for instruction -- both inside the classroom with a teacher and, as Dr. Seuss famously said, outside the classroom "sitting alone in a room". This is a hint of what would be a more proper understanding of education. Teachers are there to teach, students are to learn. Teaching takes less time than learning, and no teacher can "learn" his student. The student has to do the learning on his own. The model of more, yet shorter, school days appears to put the onus of learning where it ought to be - on the student.

However, that would be antithetical to the equality of outcome model sought after and legislated for in this country. Other reasons for more school time must be advanced in order to keep the equality of outcome ideal in focus.

The administration argument puts forward the idea that summer vacation is a time when kids' education stagnates, and postulates that poor kids may well regress due to lack of opportunity. Clearly these things are probably true in some cases, but this is just a stepping stone for Mr. Duncan's final point of the article: "Those hours from 3 o'clock to 7 o'clock are times of high anxiety for [low income, inner city] 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." And there's the rub. Longer school days, weeks, and years are being advocated with keeping kids safe as, I believe, the primary goal. Schools substitute for homes, teachers for parents. And so as not to single out inner city, poor kids -- that would be discriminatory! -- reforms will be called "universal". One size fits all education.

I ask the reader to imagine the 17-year old freshman in high school who is forced to stay in a school building for an extra three or four hours a day -- no choice. How well might that work out? Would this create a safe environment for other students? How would this child's learning be advanced in the longer school day model?

As I've written before, the matter isn't so much about the amount of time spent in school but rather how that time is used. Simply adding time, or forcing districts to add time, will not necessarily result in better educated students. Students must have valuable activities, like simply practicing what they have learned over the course of an academic day, in which to participate. And that creates another rub: academic education, for all its merits, is a volunteer activity. Students who choose to not participate and who have parents who are either too busy or too selfish to care will tend to not opt in. Those students may be in attendance physically, but they will have mentally checked out. Some things, it seems, simply can't be legislated. Individual student achievement is one of them.

1 comment:

Anne said...

Those who decry the education of U.S. students based on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) need to look at the total picture. Following the first report in 1995, school districts across the country sent curriculum specialists to study the number one ranked school system in the world, Singapore.

An overview by one such group of experts reported that students at the eighth grade level remained within their classrooms. The teachers instead moved from class to class. When the teacher entered the room, the students stood up in unison saying, “Please teach us.” The teacher would then give a brief lesson followed by a problem solving question. The students had a few minutes to work on the problem, then partnered students would work together making certain their answers were the same.

At the end of the allotted amount of time, the teacher would call on one person to come up to the front of the class and explain the answer to the entire class. At the end of the period the teacher would collect all work/homework and move on to a teacher’s grading period where every step in every single problem by every single student was checked. (Teachers taught three classes with a grading period following each class period.) The papers were then returned the next day for students to go over the missed problems. No student went on to the next objective until they had mastered the current objective.

How could this be done when there is so much to teach? There were only 28 objectives for the school year within Singapore’s schools compared to 135 in Virginia’s schools at the time. Instead of a spiraling 135 objective curriculum which increases the level of difficulty of numerous concepts each year, the 28 objective curriculum involved in-depth studies of individual math content over the course of a year. The book that was used was the size of a paperback first grade reader.

Additionally, Singapore's students worked in the schools. At lunch time two students would go to the cafeteria/kitchen and bring the lunches back for the class. After lunch another two more would not only take the lunch trash back to the cafeteria/kitchen they would also wash the dishes. After school, students were assigned duties such as cleaning the floors, mowing the grass, even cleaning the bathrooms. There were no custodians as the students cared for the school.

Once all duties were completed, many students went on to after school sessions where they worked on their lessons for the next day. One observer reported that the student in the home where he was staying did not get home from school until 10 PM. The final conclusion of the curriculum specialist, America is, both literally and figuratively, more than one-half a world away.

Decidedly, President Obama needs to do his homework as his under-educated push towards transnationalism so clearly ignores the very core differences in cultures, curriculums and priorities around the world. Recognizing such inherent differences begs for the answer to the most basic question, “What do we want for our children? Singapore or America?“

The most acceptable answer, "We may not be # 1 in the quality of math but we are # 1 in the quality of life."