Sep 28, 2009

President Obama Advocates for Longer School Days/Years

The argument for a longer school year is heating up, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan seems to support the idea of a year-round school fully. "Go ahead and boo me," Duncan said in April to Denver students. "I think schools should be open six, seven days a week, eleven, twelve months a year (from The Atlantic).

The Obama-Duncan model would have schools open later in the afternoons and on weekends, so that students would have a "safe place" to go, and also for longer periods in the year, up to 11 months as Duncan suggested.

It's not an entirely new argument, though support for it is ramping up due to sagging US test scores.

There are a lot of moving parts in the argument for a longer school year, though the central one seems to revolve around using an outmoded agrarian model has put us behind other countries in the 21st century. To a lot of the supporters, there seems to be little room for a compromise, an intermediate length between 180 days and 290.

Conor Clarke, a correspondent from 'The Atlantic' has more to say on the historical reasons for summer vacation:

The long summer break, moreover, doesn't even pretend to have a rational basis in educational policy. It's a response to (1) inadequate farming schedules; (2) the mid-20th century's lack of air conditioning; (3) the mid-20th century's fear of summertime disease transmission; and (4) the no-doubt timeless desire to mimic the summertime vacation habits of the rich.
Source: The Atlantic

Clarke's argument seems a bit specious. The idea that a longer school term will help students ignores the quite real possibility that students have already been overburdened with structure in the school in the first place, and that placing them for even longer periods would, in essence, cause a more intense and prolonged burnout, which would be counterproductive to learning.

The real problem isn't how long students are in school but how we are educating them, because quantity doesn't necessarily quality. It seems more like an oversimplification of the multiple problems facing our educational system. What we should perhaps do is create a school environment more akin to what most students will see after graduation. More computers and computer access, some instruction/classes based on real-life situations, and perhaps a more fluid, malleable idea of "success", rather than demanding that college is the only route to a successful career.

Another likely issue in the fight is teacher pay. Would pay go up for teachers spending that much more time in school, or would their ostensible "hourly" wage go down? If the average teacher makes 33,000/year - and we'll use that figure as an estimate - if we went from a 180 day school-year to a 240 day school-year, that's a 30% increase. A teacher making 33K would need an additional 11K in compensation to make pay equal time increased.

And what about property taxes? Unless I'm mistaken, property taxes pay for local schools, and with a rise in costs for schools, property taxes would also go up, along with the overall cost of schooling.

While education cold probably use more funding, our system would probably benefit more from a smarter use of government funds rather than a precipitous incline in them. Neither President Obama nor Secretary Duncan has mentioned how much instruction testing and test-prep has taken away from teachers and students. The system itself right now is entirely too inefficient, and efforts to rectify that would hopefully have a more lasting impact than an 11-month curriculum.

UPDATE (10/6/09):

Arnie Duncan went on 'The Colbert Report' last night, advocating for the longer school year.

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