A few years ago, I was sitting at my desk this morning and reviewing several articles discussing and debating changes taking place in schools across the country. All the articles were dated in the past two weeks and they appeared in a range of publications including the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek. I am excited about this abundance of news about changes that our education system needs so badly. Yet it is also clear that these are relatively isolated examples of exploring options within a huge and generally change-resistant, overly bureaucratic system.
For the most part when you enter a school or a classroom, it really isn’t very different than the ones I went to in the 1940s and 1950s or the ones my parents went to in the 1920s and 1930s. Children are still divided by age groups, sitting in box-like rooms, most still in rows of uncomfortable desks, spending most of their day in a passive process of listening to a teacher, doing a lot of rote work, and struggling with homework. In high school, students still move through a day of many disconnected courses and have minimal connection to their teachers. Dropout rates remain high in urban schools.
The problem is the world in which students and families exist today is dramatically different from when I was young or when my parents were young. In addition, much more is known about how children learn. Yet schools have failed miserably to use this information to create meaningful change in how students are taught and certainly have not made changes to keep in step with changes in family systems or our society or our advances in technology. Nor have they incorporated better ways of preparing students to deal with the world they will face when they leave school.
Thus I was excited to read these articles and am hopeful that maybe some meaningful change is taking root and could slowly spread across the country. This is more likely to happen if parents become informed about these issues and push for change. I hope what follows stirs a few of you to seek meaningful changes in the way your children are educated.
The three topics covered in the articles on my desk are lengthening the school day or year, eliminating middle schools, and the problem with homework. I have written previously about the ills of homework so I suggest rereading one of my articles if you need more insight about this issue or read the wonderful book by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, “The Case against Homework” (to which I was a contributor), which should be required reading for every parent. I was very pleased to read more data and anecdotes supporting the positive effects of the reduced or eliminated homework model in the Wall Street Journal article (1/19/07, section W). I must share just one tidbit. A 2003 study of math and science achievement showed that in three countries that were among the top achievers, Japan, Czech Republic, and Denmark, teachers gave the least amount of homework. In fact, since Japan is often seen as having a superior education system, I must note that many of Japan’s highest-ranked high schools eliminated homework in the mid-1990s!
As for eliminating middle school, most everyone seems to agree this should be done and those who are doing it are reporting very positive results. The main debate is whether schools should be k-8/9-12 or k-6/7-12. The data so far doesn’t support one more than the other. I am strongly in favor of eliminating middle schools. It isolates children at a critical point in their development when they need inclusion, not exclusion. Much of the violence reported in high schools has its roots in the rejection, teasing, and bullying in 7th and 8th grades that generates a deep rage inside those pained children. As for which grade model should be used, I think the debate reflects one of the inherent problems with public education: focusing on finding a one-size-fits-all answer when the best answer is nearly always to have choice. Thus, I would recommend having both options available. Some middle school students will be better off being able to stay children for a couple of more years while others are ready to be part of a more advanced social and academic group.
That leaves the more complex issue of lengthening the school day or the school year which will be the primary focus of this article.
Increasing the Amount of Time Children Spend in School
This is an issue that has been discussed for decades but little has been done about it. American children spend less time in school than most of the rest of comparable countries. Part of the reason lies in the roots of our educational system, which was created to fit around the farming and harvesting schedule of our rural society starting about 400 years ago. But the resistance to substantial change really lies with teacher unions, concerns about costs, and the belief that children need time off to play. There is also the vision of wonderful summer vacations, a reality for only a limited percentage of children in the U.S. and a substantial burden for most of the poor, urban families.
States determine how much time children must spend in school and there are significant disparities within the country. A recent study of this issue reported differences of as much as several weeks of schooling in the 50 largest school districts in the U.S.
Newsweek’s article on this topic (1/22/07 issue, p.12) noted how New York City had added 65 minutes to its school day and, given that the NYC school year is 12 days longer, it adds up to eight more weeks of class time than the city of Chicago, a significant potential advantage for the NYC children. Notice, however, I use the phrase “potential advantage.” Simply more of the same poor educational approach is not going to prove helpful. I strongly believe in a much longer school day and school year. But that requires a very different vision and mission for our schools.