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Reflections on Grass Root Changes in Educating Children

Reflections on Grass Root Changes in Educating Children 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.

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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.

Today the American family is a very diverse group, but the dominant reality is that either both parents are working or there is only a single parent in the home. This means that many children are unsupervised after they are dismissed from school. The majority of teen drug use and crime occurs during those unsupervised after-school hours. Younger children often participate in after-school programs, if they are available and the parents can afford the costs. In addition, many children are highly scheduled with sports, arts, and other interests, resulting in mothers playing the role of stationmasters and taxi drivers, an enormous burden that robs both children and parents of down time and family time.

It is in this context that the vision of schools as children’s community centers has emerged, a vision I strongly support. Spending a full day in a school that incorporates significant time committed to physical activity/sports, cultural and social activities fills the full range of needs that all children require to create a strong base of experience to help prepare them for a meaningful role in the real world. Schooling that limits its vision to maximizing test scores and getting more students into college are too narrow in focus. Good social and communication skills are essential to a successful life. For many children, the academics-only approach guarantees failure, for they lack the personality type or academic ability to succeed in school. Their intelligence may be more in art, drama, visual-spatial tasks (found in many trade jobs), emotional sensitivity and leadership…there are many forms of intelligence but schools fail to bring most of them into the classroom in any meaningful way.

We know that children develop at different rates. Even students who ultimately end up reading at similar skill levels may arrive at those levels at different ages. Yet schools are age-based and children who may simply be delayed in some areas are quickly identified as having learning problems and end up labeled as special needs students or placed in lower level groupings, creating a stigma that turns them off to learning. Yet how often is it said that the real goal of public education is to nurture an interest in learning that will continue throughout life. On that count, our schools are failing miserably.

So picture this. Young children (all-day kindergarten should be mandatory) leave home the earliest. The teens get to sleep later, something their development requires, and can be left on their own to get to school so parents can leave for work if necessary. Children are in school all day, getting home by 5-6. Eliminate town sports and music lessons by providing these activities as part of the school day. Teams can be comprised of children within the same school. Individual lessons in art and music for the children who are more gifted in these areas can be paid for by parents; the rest will do these in groups. There is no homework except for special projects for older students (teens) that cannot be done in school. This means the extra assignments are done in school with access to educators who can make sure the children are actually mastering the skills. Thus, when children get home after their long day, they are through with school and the focus can be on family time and pursuing personal interests.

Since probably half the students in four-year colleges don’t belong there, public education should be less focused on getting their students into college and more focused on identifying children’s strengths and getting them on a path that will encourage those students to get the maximum benefit from those strengths. There is a huge need for trained people in many industries. Two-year colleges or vocational programs make more sense for a large number of young adults. I have seen struggling teenagers come to life when they ended up in cooking school and becoming chefs or going to specialty vocational schools and learning violin repair and stained glass restoration. These are but a few of hundreds of high-paying careers in dire need of skilled workers. Generations ago,mentoring and apprenticeships filled these needs. Now it has been given a second-class image instead of being treated as an equally important goal for our young people. Only going to college is seen as the successful route for a young adult. Meanwhile, the dropout rate for college is substantial, many who graduate remain lost with regard to careers, and college is absurdly expensive.

High school students should have block programming (more time given to fewer classes) and should be taught basic life skills around money management, communication skills, problem-solving, and marriage and family. Mandatory classes requiring being daycare aides with the related child development courses would not only raise the level of parenting skills and improve the quality of daycare centers but I believe it would also reduce the amount of child abuse.

I also strongly believe that students from about sixth grade on should be reading contemporary books that are of higher interest and describe a world that they can recognize and relate to. This is especially important for minority students who need to become familiar with adults of similar race whom they can look up to and continue to read their works after graduation. These students need “heroes” that offer more than the arrogance and poor role modeling of our professional athletes (or our politicians…or our greedy corporate leaders). The classics can be reserved for advanced placement classes.

Finally, there needs to be much more focus on cooperative learning and less of the competitive, student vs. student model that currently dominates. Grades should reflect the ability to work together as much as developing individual skill sets. This will reinforce the concept of each student finding what she can best contribute and help everyone see strengths rather than the chronic focus on individual weakness and failure. It’s almost ironic that teamwork is such a critical workplace skill yet it is not what our students are being taught. By the way, this focus on a cooperative model has been demonstrated to reduce bullying and school violence.

Yes I’m very passionate about the value of more time spent in school if schools are restructured to truly meet the needs of children and properly prepare them for the adult world. I realize there are many issues that would need to get worked out. There does need to be some reasonable vacation time. There would be a major need for adequate space and equipment for sports, music, and arts along with some technical training. Besides some federal monies to jumpstart this maybe some of the billionaires who are contributing to education around the world could include the U.S. in their grants!

The issue of the cost of teachers working longer days would need to be carefully examined. While raises would be required, the type of system I have described would allow for different levels of teachers as well as returning to a meaningful role for specialists. This would allow teachers more free time to get all their work done during the school day as well. Right now it is a joke to say that teachers work a short day. Most spend many hours per night correcting assignments and preparing lessons. In reality, a true school day that ends at 5 or 6 might not actually involve working more hours, just different hours. That could do wonders for the family life of teachers as well.

I know this doesn’t cover every aspect of this issue, but I hope it has stimulated your interest in seeking change for an out-dated, out-of-touch public education system. As parents, you are paying the salaries of the administrators and teachers. As the book on homework clearly demonstrates, when parents join forces and push for change, change happens. So I hope I will be reading more media articles in the months and years ahead about changes that you have generated for the benefit of your children.

Reflections on Grass Root Changes in Educating Children

Kalman Heller, PhD

Dr. Kalman Heller is a retired psychologist who ran a successful private practice. He previously wrote a monthly column for a local newspaper, and later took his "ParenTalk" column online. This article is reprinted from his online column with his permission.

APA Reference
Heller, K. (2018). Reflections on Grass Root Changes in Educating Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
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