Another Push for More School Time

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.

Bob Myer blogs at Mind of Flapjack.

Thomas Lifson adds:

So far few are mentioning the financial dimension. A longer school year is a payoff to the teacher unions. Obviously, salaries will have to be raised at least in proportion to the increase in days worked.

Follow the money, people!