Friday, July 30, 2010

Free Exchange on Twitter

You can now join A Free Exchange of Ideas on Twitter, arguably the freest (is that a word?) exchange of ideas in history.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Longer hours or better schools?

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan thinks they're synonymous.

I wrote last year about the Obama administration's vision for improving our public schools. While the success of the president's Race to the Top program is difficult to rate at this point, his top school official isn't. Speaking at the National Press Club this week, he reiterated his call for extending the school year. The whole argument goes something like this: we instituted summer vacation in a time when most of the country was still farmers and students needed the time off to work in their family fields, but that's not the case anymore. "I think schools should be open 12, 13, 14 hours a day, seven days a week, 11-12 months of the year," he says. "If you practice basketball five times a week, you're gonna be better than the people who practice three times a week."

I've posted before about the erroneous nature of that argument. Interestingly, I quoted a basketball player in that post, Michael Jordan, who said of longer practice days that "you can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way." Fundamentals, Mr. Jordan instructs us, are what lifts the quality of our efforts, not just how much time we devote to them. Sitting a student down from 8 in the morning to 8 in the evening every day of the year isn't going to make him learn; unless you want him to learn to hate school, that is.

To be fair, Sec. Duncan doesn't just want "more of the same". He wants to fix the problems with the schools themselves, to cure overcrowding and insufficient learning resources. He thinks schools should be more along the lines of community centers, with athletic and teaching facilities available to the general public. It's certainly an intriguing idea, and one that could create a greater sense of investment on the community's part. However, it's not necessarily practical.

Neither is a longer school year. Yes, fewer children are "working in the fields" these days, but that doesn't mean they can't make good use of their summer months. Most children, teenagers at least, find other work to do. They get jobs at restaurants, retail stores, and other places that enjoy a hiring boom during the summer. This teaches them practical finances and work skills that they can't gain in a classroom. It teaches them responsibility and hard work, and provides them with other opportunities that wouldn't be available to them if school was instituted year-round.

Also, it provides a much needed break from school. Academics are absolutely important, but as anyone who's been to school can tell you, at some point studying becomes counterproductive. Everyone takes a break, whether from school or work. Even religious leaders take sabbaticals every now and then. Vacations are good for the soul.

Which brings up my next objection: a longer school week infringes upon the free practice of religion, which is guaranteed in the First Amendment. Christians go to church on Sundays, Jews go to synagogues on Saturdays, etc. Eliminating the weekend forces not only students to interrupt their religious attendance, but it puts pious adults in the position of doing so, as well. Many teachers across the country are members of one religion or another, and the sacred day of rest, the Sabbath from which the term "sabbatical" was formed, is just that: sacred.

I believe in school reform and education reform. I know there are many schools, students, and communities that are falling far behind the "accepted" standards and need help improving. Extending school hours isn't the answer, though. I mentioned fundamentals earlier, and in my previous post. They include better recruiting and training of teachers, adequate and up-to-date teaching materials, proper teaching facilities, and strong community involvement. None of those fundamentals are served by having school all the time. The money it would take just to keep the doors open all day, all week, and all year would be much better spent rebuilding decrepit buildings, printing enough textbooks for each student to use, and paying teachers salaries commensurate with the job they do and the responsibility they have. Maybe all that won't work; but it's certainly worth trying before we tell every child in this country they'll only be allowed to go home when it's time to sleep.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Tea Party moves into a new House

In just under a year and a half, the Tea Party has gone from an underreported national movement to an undeniable political force. Thousands of rallies held in every state of the union have testified to the movement's popularity, and the nominations of candidates such as Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida testify to its influence.

And now, the New York Times reports that the House of Representatives has approved an official Tea Party Caucus, with Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota (herself a Tea Party favorite) as Chairwoman. The Caucus has 28 members, so far all Republican, though there have been reports that some Democrats have shown interest in joining.

Many have wondered about the future of the movement, its direction and organization. A formal national Tea Party that would exist as a real alternative to the two major political parties has been and is on the minds of many Americans, both inside and outside the movement. Having an official caucus in the House would seem to suggest a certain amount of ambition on behalf of the movement's members. But Chairwoman Bachmann insists the caucus is there for one reason: "to listen to the concerns of the Tea Party." It is not there to be a mouthpiece for the Party or to preempt its message or momentum in any way, and the members of the caucus are not to be seen as "leaders" of the Tea Party. All that may be true; but signing up as a member of this caucus can certainly have significant political ramifications, as evidenced by the fact that the top two Republicans in the House, John Boehner and Eric Cantor, have yet to join.

The Tea Party has always striven for one thing: authenticity. Though there are a number of Democrats and Independents in the movement, and events are typically headlined by "minority" speakers such as Herman Cain and Bishop E. W. Jackson, the Tea Party has been denounced by its opponents from the beginning as fake, ignorant, partisan, racist, and even unpatriotic. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But with every step forward the movement takes, the opposition grows. I can almost see the talking points this new caucus could inspire, especially as regards the Party's goals and ambitions. Will having an official "ear" on the Hill do more harm than good? Time will tell. At the very least, no one on either side of the aisle can say the movement will disappear any time soon.