Obama Wasn’t Kidding About Being The Education President

If President Obama has his way, next summer’s public school vacation may be sharply reduced. The president believes that American kids spend too little time in school, and this puts them at a disadvantage with other students around the globe.

He knows only too well that longer school days and school years are not particularly popular ideas in other families as well as his own, as a father of Malia, a sixth-grader, and Sasha, a third-grader. But at the same time, he’s also well aware that the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom now.

The president would like to see schools add time to classes, stay open later, and let kids in on weekends so they have a safe place to go. “Our school calendar is based upon the agrarian economy and not too many of our kids are working the fields today,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. It’s pretty clear that some changes may need to be made regarding the length of the school day and the length of the school year, but there’s not a lot of agreement as to what changes to make.

Obama and Duncan say kids in the United States need more school because kids in other nations have more school. “Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here,” Duncan told the AP. “I want to just level the playing field.” While it is true that kids in many other countries have more school days, it’s not true they all spend more time in school.

One girl from a Boston school, Domonique, initially was upset when she first learned that she was going to be part of a 3-year-old state initiative to add 300 hours of school time in nearly two dozen schools. The plan added about two hours to each school day. Early results are positive. Even reluctant Domonique, who just started ninth grade, feels differently now. “I’ve learned a lot,” she said.

Does Obama want every kid to do these things? School until dinnertime? Summer school? And what about the idea that kids today are overscheduled and need more time to play?

After all, who runs the schools anyway? Is it the adults or the kids?

It is true that kids in the U.S. spend more hours in school (1,146 instructional hours per year) than do kids in the Asian countries that persistently outscore the U.S. on math and science tests — Singapore (903), Taiwan (1,050), Japan (1,005) and Hong Kong (1,013). That is despite the fact that Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong have longer school years (190 to 201 days) than does the U.S. (180 days).

This seems to be the determining factor here. We need to ask ourselves if our American schools are adequately preparing our students to deal with the demands of math and science in an ever-changing 21st century economy. Nobody wants to find themselves left behind.

A researcher from the Brookings Institution, Tom Loveless, found that math scores rose significantly in countries that added only minutes to the day, rather than more days to the year. “Ten minutes sounds trivial to a school day, but don’t forget, these math periods in the U.S. average 45 minutes,” Loveless said. “Percentage-wise, that’s a pretty healthy increase.”

Charter schools are known for having longer school days or weeks or years. For example, kids in the KIPP network of 82 charter schools across the country go to school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., more than three hours longer than the typical day. They go to school every other Saturday and for three weeks in the summer. KIPP eighth-grade classes exceed their school district averages on state tests.

In Massachusetts’ expanded learning time initiative, early results indicate that kids in some schools do better on state tests than do kids at regular public schools. The extra time, which schools can add as hours or days, is for three things: core academics — kids struggling in English, for example, get an extra English class; more time for teachers; and enrichment time for kids. Regular public schools are adding time, too, though it is optional and not usually part of the regular school day. Their calendars are pretty much set in stone.

Several schools are going year-round by shortening summer vacation and lengthening other breaks. Many schools are going beyond the traditional summer school model, in which schools give remedial help to kids who flunked or fell behind. Summer is a crucial time for kids, especially poorer kids, because poverty is linked to problems that interfere with learning, such as hunger and less involvement by their parents.

That makes poor children almost totally dependent on their learning experience at school, said Karl Alexander, a sociology professor at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, home of the National Center for Summer Learning.

Disadvantaged kids, on the whole, make no progress in the summer, Alexander said. Some studies suggest they actually fall back. Wealthier kids have parents who read to them, have strong language skills and go to great lengths to give them learning opportunities such as computers, summer camp, vacations, music lessons, or playing on sports teams.

“If your parents are high school dropouts with low literacy levels and reading for pleasure is not hard-wired, it’s hard to be a good role model for your children, even if you really want to be,” Alexander said.

Extra time is not cheap. The Massachusetts program costs an extra $1,300 per student, or 12 percent to 15 percent more than regular per-student spending, said Jennifer Davis, a founder of the program. It received more than $17.5 million from the state Legislature last year.

Aside from improving academic performance, Education Secretary Duncan has a vision of schools as the heart of the community. Duncan, who was Chicago’s schools chief, grew up studying alongside poor kids on the city’s South Side as part of the tutoring program his mother still runs.

“Those hours from 3 o’clock to 7 o’clock are times of high anxiety for parents,” Duncan said. “They want their children safe. Families are working one and two and three jobs now to make ends meet and to keep food on the table.”

He was just following up on his message he delivered a few weeks ago in his address to the nation’s students broadcast live on C-Span on Dish-Network.

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