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Jewish World Review
Oct. 8, 2009
/ 20 Tishrei 5770
It's time to get smarter on extended school day
Last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and odd couple Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich were in Philadelphia to promote President Obama's education overhaul. Their first stop was Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker campus. Students there attend class until 4 p.m. — more than an hour past the typical public school dismissal — and on Saturdays.
The same day, our 13-year-old was on his school bus by 7 a.m. School began at 8. His classroom instruction ended at 2:45 in the afternoon. He then had mandatory after-school athletics — a cross-country match — and got home around 4:45. It's a long day.
Not all school days are as long or as rigorous as our son's, and so the president wants schools across the country to add hours to the day or days to the year. "Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here," Duncan said recently. "I just want to level the playing field."
"Six hours a day just doesn't cut it," he added on the day before his Philly visit. "Our school calendar's based on a 19th-century agrarian economy. I'm sure there weren't too many kids in Philadelphia working in their parents' fields this summer."
He makes sense, but the current system is not a failure for every child in the city or its suburbs. And while the outdated U.S. curriculum can certainly be tweaked, it shouldn't come at the expense of teachers already burdened with filling a void that some parents' inattention leaves. Already we ask them to play the role of social workers, therapists, health-care providers and disciplinarians.
And not everyone agrees that the academic surface is unlevel. Tom Loveless is an education policy expert at the Brookings Institution and a former public policy professor at Harvard. "American kids actually go to school more than the international average," he told me. "When you add up all the minutes in a year, their number of minutes in school exceeds the international average."
So what explains the lagging U.S. education efforts? "We probably don't use our time in school as efficiently as some countries, so we're not as focused strictly on academic matters. We do a lot of other things in schools that other countries don't do," Loveless told me. Foreign over-achievers, meanwhile, also dedicate more time outside the classroom to what Loveless called "academic pursuits." Not homework, but not Halo either.
Two days after Duncan, Sharpton and Gingrich visited Philadelphia, another news item caught my eye: A Washington Post article detailing how new U.S. Census data provided a first-time glimpse at the makeup of stay-at-home mothers. Far from the conventional wisdom that they're career women who hopped off the fast track, the census data showed that stay-at-home moms are more likely to be younger, less educated, and from families with lower incomes.
Which got me thinking. It's those elements — less education, less money, less experience — that make it more difficult for families to reinforce a child's education. Those children are the ones with the most to benefit from longer school days and years. Arguably they're better off at school than at home when it comes to academics.
Which is why Loveless believes that President Obama and Secretary Duncan are proposing a culture shift. Years ago, he pointed out, wearing a seatbelt was considered an afterthought and a hassle. "Today it's simply part of what a person does when they get into in a car. And that was promoted by the government, so we had a change in the culture."
"Now obviously the government can't cram things down the public's throat," he continued. "But what they can do is just — in a very rational manner — ... take academic excellence more seriously, and one way we can do that is by increasing the amount of time kids spend in school ... if we take it more seriously as a culture, we're going to do better in terms of academics."
All of which makes sense. But if Loveless' observations are correct — and efficiency and after-school pursuits are the real issues — why expand the time all American kids spend in school? Not every student's culture needs to change. And keeping students in school longer forces everybody to compensate for a relative few.
It also shifts the burden of afterschool enlightenment from parents to teachers when some of the parents are themselves in need of a bit more adult supervision.
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