Do Kids Really Need an Expanded School Year?
Every year, educators push harder for a longer school year — and even year-round schooling, not merely “summer school” — as standard operating procedure: Barack Obama’s 2010 interview, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s CBS/WBBM interview, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, Outliers, and an assortment of respected studies, most notably from Rand Corporation and Johns Hopkins University, picked up by entities as diverse as The Washington Post, The New York Times, Education Week, Economics of Education Review, and Phi Delta Kappan, are all indicative of a notion whose time has come, across the political spectrum.
Ben Wolfgang’s piece in the conservative Washington Times for September 30 (Oct. 3 print edition), is a case in point. His article was based on a report by the National Center on Time and Learning, one among dozens of education advocacy groups favoring the concept.
Malcolm Gladwell’s popular recent book, Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown & Co./Hachette Book Co.) comes at the subject by a slightly different route. He writes that the “only problem with school, for kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.”
Gladwell, you may recall, is the author of two renowned, if contentious, tomes including Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and The Tipping Point: How Little things Can Make a Big Difference. He explains that the term “outlier” is based in science, describing phenomena “that lie outside normal experience.” He says “the book grew out of a frustration I found myself having with the way we explain the careers of really successful people.” Like so many others, he noticed that high intelligence and ambition do not necessarily translate to big-bucks success, or to the proverbial “making a difference,” or even to personal fulfillment in one’s field of choice. In chapter 9, Gladwell explains his support for an extended school year this way, as summarized in a blog-post review by author Mark F. Dewitt:
…the work ethic [handed down] by wet rice agriculture is the main difference that gives East Asians a cultural edge in mathematics. Growing rice on rice paddies is hard and meaningful work not unlike the kind that small business owners in the [mainly Jewish] New York garment industry had a hundred years ago. A culture based on rice production and consumption develops proverbs like, 'No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich." This work ethic then translates to formal education, where the South Korean school year is 220 days and the Japanese 243 days, in contrast to the average American school year of 180 days. So the author would have us conclude that there is no mystery around East Asian superiority in math, rather it is simply their cultural legacy that gives them permission to work harder than we do at everything….”
Jeff Smink (vice president for policy for the National Summer Learning Association) essentially agreed in a July 2011 New York Times op-ed, cleverly titled “This Is Your Brain on Summer.” He quotes all sorts of studies, including ones from Rand Corporation and Johns Hopkins University, which seem to support “decades of research…that summer learning loss is real,” supposedly causing the ongoing underachievement of American students.
Our nation has experienced an approximate 1,050 percent increase in K-12 spending since 1970 according the National Center for Education Statistics. Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett (1985-1988) recently broke it down in an op-ed for CNN: “The 2011 budget for the Department of Education is estimated to top $70 billion, while overall spending on public elementary and secondary education is about $600 billion a year. By comparison, in 1972, before the Department of Education even existed, SAT critical reading scores for college-bound seniors were above 525, more than 20 points higher than they are today, while today's math scores are only slightly better than in 1972. As the United States increases education spending, our students' scores should not be getting worse.”
Moreover, if all we have to show for some 50 years of ineffective education “movements” (nine of them since Sputnik brought the issue to national attention), is a continued plunge in` Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, disrespect for learning and high truancy rates, no amount of “expanded learning time” is going to improve matters.
The problems that plague our educational institutions, especially the public schools, are systemic. Our priorities are wrong-headed. Indeed, a case can be made that the last thing American children need is more institutionalized schooling. Even Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis scoffs at the idea, saying that “having teachers doing more of what they’re doing now, and expecting different results makes no sense.”
If it’s professional day care and babysitting services that parents are after (but don’t want to admit), they still aren’t getting much bang for the tax buck in tax-supported environments. Youngsters spend their days jockeying for popularity points from the minute they step onto the school bus until the moment they arrive home. Even then, they are expected to spend most of their evenings on extracurricular activities, now deemed a “must do,” especially for the college-bound.
All this means that children spend more time with each other than they do with adults. And that’s part of the problem. Schools have become the ultimate stressful, “hostile environments” — hostile to learning, hostile to free and open debate, hostile to American values, hostile to good manners, hostile to competition, hostile toward parents, hostile to fine culture… well, we could go on. Schoolchildren are not engaged with adulthood, period. With every new graduating class, young people have less grasp of what maturity entails, especially the financial realities. No wonder we have “boomerang kids" and irrational "Wall Street" protests!”
Like so many proponents of longer school hours and years, Gladwell gets off track with his reasoning in Outliers, with comments like the following, based on a Q&A from his website:
…a hugely disproportionate number of professional hockey and soccer players are born in January, February and March. …the point is that very best hockey players are people who are talented and work hard but who also benefit from the weird and largely unexamined and peculiar ways in which their world is organized. I actually have a lot of fun with birthdates in Outliers. Did you know that there's a magic year to be born if you want to be a software entrepreneur? And another magic year to be born if you want to be really rich?
Such peculiar observations veer onto questionable turf, in this case rather reminiscent of astrology than education’s ills. Facts get murky. As Tom Bartlett pointed out in a blog article for the Chronicle of Higher Education October 10, 2011:
The numbers Gladwell uses are from a chart in a 20-year-old magazine article—a chart that, incidentally, includes the Soviet Union—but it’s certainly true that kids in South Korea and Japan go to school longer than kids in the United States.
Somehow, though, Finland never comes up in these discussions.
Finland is consistently at or near the top of PISA test scores [PDF], a test that is given every three years in countries around the world and measures achievement in reading, math, and science. The school year in Finland is 190 days, far short of South Korea and Japan, but slightly longer than in the United States.
Bartlett raises the point that too much time is spent by “experts” looking at the standardized test scores of low-income versus high-income kids in divided urban areas, with the finding “that low-income kids had worse scores at the beginning of fall than at the end of spring. From this, the authors conclude that the dog days of summer made them dumber. They are, [in the President’s words], forgetting what they learned.” Further on, he notes:
But higher income kids [don’t] forget. In fact, their scores ticked up over the summer.
Why is that? Maybe those kids have more books at home…. Maybe it’s because their parents take them to museums more often or feed them more nutritious food or take them to Italy rather than Six Flags. No one seems to know for sure, but perhaps that’s worth figuring out before we tack on another month or two of academics.
No doubt the value placed on education is a huge factor. But again, there’s more to it. To come up with any real transformation in education, let’s be clear on the situation. We currently have:
- Intractable peer pressure, making it impossible for teachers to actually teach.
- Lack of respect for schools, pitting parents against educators/administrators and between adults and children.
- Schools that are increasingly hard-pressed to hire or keep good teachers.
- Parental interest that declines by a student’s fourth-grade year [PDF], with school involvement suffering accordingly.
- Schools that are playgrounds for political opportunists (e.g., gay-transgendered movements and global warming propaganda).
- Mixed messages to kids — about drugs, sex, energy production, population, etc.
- Key curricula that are missing in most 21st century America classrooms.
The results: delinquency, unemployability, alienation, cultural decline, entitlement surges, social pathologies, teen suicide, disease and more.
So, how do we fix education?
There are two options: (1) completely revamp the government-subsidized system — unlikely, although increasingly mentioned even by liberals, such as the late Steve Jobs and actor Matt Damon, especially in the context of the teachers unions and U.S. Department of Education (DOEd) behemoths; or (2) privatize (and perhaps franchise) schools, thereby discouraging union power and the DOEd influences, while encouraging successful alternatives which parents would then be able to afford. Either way, Americans need to get specific about prioritizing and force government to cut the nonsense. Former esteemed Commissioner of Education Statistics’ Pascal D. Forgione, Jr., Ph.D., famously admitted in a speech that “even if your school compares well in SAT scores, it will still be a lightweight on an international scale.” Having said that, his previously vaunted status suddenly tanked in DOEd circles, but resonated with the public.
First of all, as many have pointed out, children do not need twelve years of schooling! Twelve years of schooling unnecessarily prolongs adolescence. Too much time is wasted on nonessentials that parents can subsidize during better-spent summers or after school via recreational organizations.
So, let us reconsider the objectives of U.S. schooling. There really are only four:
- To create a literate citizenry, with the goal being capability of self-government;
- To assure the financial independence of every American (because doing so assures political stability);
- To enhance the general culture (i.e., fine art, music, sculpture and philosophy, etc., thereby channeling creativity and “emotional overload”);
- To institutionalize moral standards consistent with the Founders’ unique concepts about democracy (life, pursuit of happiness, national sovereignty, property rights, free speech and stable childhoods).
That’s it. No subsidized lunches (remember brown bags?), no sports (remember “recess”?), no school psychologists (remember nurturing teachers?) and no “snoop surveys” (recall respect for privacy?) Toward these ends, specific curricula, currently missing from too many classrooms, needs to be made mainstays: courses in economics beginning at grade 6, which include definitional and operational differences between socialism and free markets; a reinstatement of both geography and chronological history, without any sugar-coating called “social studies”; and short units on reproduction and substance abuse folded into a course in physiology. Way too much time is spent on intimate sexual details and “social studies” that pander to political agendas.
And how about real tests for a change, instead of those phony-baloney standardized “assessments,” which are not tests? The difference can be found directly from the horse’s mouth. Is it too much to ask that schools find testing agencies that can do the job sans the psychological profiles, political correctness and “cultural” accommodations? We didn’t need them prior to World War II, when there were far more immigrants than today, and we don’t need them now. And yes, immigrants should assimilate — else, why immigrate to the U.S. at all?
This is the substance of real school reform — especially Option 2. Senator Tom Harkin’s (D-Ia.) October 11 “breakthrough bill” to provide waivers to states on No Child Left Behind should instead end the fed’s role. If parents did not have to pay some $20,000-$25,000 per pupil in taxes they would be freed up to make a choice based on their own children’s learning proclivities. It would provide incentive for school involvement, and create an improved teacher-parent climate. The kind of reform detailed above doesn’t flail about in all directions. It helps assure that children get the basics before they weigh in on the world’s problems and start canvassing neighborhoods with petitions. Of course, if some parents want their kids enrolled in year-round programs beyond what is educationally necessary, they can do that — but on their own dime as well as through religious, recreational and charitable organizations.