Or Are We Just Self-Destructing?
If the nation’s children aren’t succeeding in school, it means they need more time in school. Such is the position of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said that he supports the adding of hundreds of hours to academic calendars. A pilot project which will encompass 20,000 students across several states and schools aims at adding at least 300 hours each academic year. The reasons why many are supporting such changes might surprise you – and clue us in to a self-destructive education plan.
Why Are People Fighting for Longer School Calendars?
Not all school calendar plans are created equally.
- Rearrange the schedule while maintain a similar amount of school hours (more frequent breaks spread out over the course of an entire year).
- Add actual days of instruction (as many as 30 or more to each calendar year).
- Divide the school children into groups and rotate days they are in school (using the school buildings and teachers for more days in the hopes of reducing class sizes).
Each of these three methods have their own pros and cons, but the overall approach is supported by many educators and the American government. That is because the American government is taking notice that our students aren’t exactly leading the way in the classrooms. And if we aren’t leading the way in the classrooms, we can’t be leading the way in the world. (I guess I didn’t know that the world was run by standardized tests…)
Arne Duncan, along with his supporters, claim that there are several benefits to increasing academic hours each year.
- It reduces the summer learning gap that some children experience (usually those living in poorer neighborhoods and in families with fewer resources).
- Longer school calendars will extend the opportunities for children on poverty to receive free and reduced meals.
- Families without stay-at-home parents don’t have to find interim daycare for the entire summer.
Calendars Aren’t the Problem – Attitudes about Education Are
Adjusting the school calendars to add more hours, instead of simply adjusting the school calendars to be more effective, is a perplexing plan. For as much hype as Arne Duncan and others want to put on the effectiveness of more academic hours each year, the actual supporting evidence is scant. In fact:
- A review by the Center for Public Education found that students in India and China (2 countries that have been cited by Duncan as examples of calendar and academic models), in reality don’t require their students to spend more hours in the classroom.
- Several states, including Minnesota and Massachusetts, have higher than average test scores yet still implement school calendars that don’t start until after Labor Day. In the great state of Minnesota, there was talk of extending the classroom calendars to begin school in late August, but it was quickly shut down by teachers, families, and businesses that rely on vacationing families.
- Teachers lose out on opportunities to develop their skills through extended learning courses and practical applications when they are expected to spend more time in the classroom.
- Finland, while it outscores America in many academic areas, requires its students to be in school for fewer hours.
- Students lose opportunities for free play, to exercise their imaginations, to work summer jobs that help pay for college, and time with families.
Simply extending school hours and lengthening the academic calendar will not prepare students for the future. We need to move away from the school of thought that tries to convince us that warm bodies sitting behind desks is the best way to learn. Instead of a discussion on increased hours, it is time to hold a discussion on increased academic variety.
- Offer enrichment programs such as the National Summer Learning Association in the summer that are both educational and rich with opportunities for exploration, especially in communities where children are at risk for lagging in the summer or for families who do not have someone at home to care for the children during summer break.
- Get away from rigid grade levels and move to more of a Montessori approach that would allow for intergenerational teaching and learning. If students spend 6 weeks at the beach with their parents and then forget how to divide, they can go back to school at their levels and where their abilities are, instead of punch a time clock for their grade.
- Expand individualized instruction and implement learning style evaluations to meet the needs of all the children in the classroom.
- Change the expectations and goals of education. Are we doing this to create worker bees or to develop our families who can be successful, happy, and healthy?
- Change the expectations we have as parents for summer vacation. If we keep kids out of classrooms for 3 months instead of 4 weeks during the summer – are they really going to sprawl in the meadow and count butterflies or shooting stars? Or will the kids instead be shuttled between baseball tournaments (I know we were in a different city each weekend last year with one son), flitting between swimming lessons and park days with friends? Will the kids sprawl on living room floors in the air-conditioned comfort, texting, gaming, and plotting with friends how to take over Facebook?
If we are realistic with ourselves we can admit that even though we wish that our kids could experience the laze of summer days, we are the culprits in making sure that lazy summer days don’t happen. We work in dual income households where organized care or activities for the kids are needed. We put forth efforts keeping up with the Jones and Smith families. We think we are helping our kids to become well-rounded if we keep them busy. And school is very adept at keeping kids busy. The best summers my family has spent have been when my kids have declined the offer for golf, baseball, or any-other-time-sucking-camp or class and opted for an old fashioned summer vacation. In the words of my then 10-year-old: I just want time to enjoy summer and make up my mind as I go along. I want to fish and play in the backyard. Well said, young man.
According to the Coalition for a Traditional School Year (yes – there really is a grass-roots effort dedicated to old school schedules): Families and teachers – not calendars – teach children.