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.

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