Make the School Year Better, Not Longer

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An edited version of this column appeared in the December 12, 2007, edition of Urban Tulsa Weekly. The published version is no longer available online. Posted online on September 10, 2017.

Make the School Year Better, Not Longer
By Michael D. Bates

Last month a task force urged Oklahoma's State Board of Education to require all school districts to extend the school year. If the legislature approves the recommendation, the minimum number of school days would increase from 175 to 190. The national average is 180 days.

The idea is being pushed by longtime State Superintendent Sandy Garrett, who also wants to increase the length of the school day from six to seven hours.

The idea is that more time is necessarily better, and it's just not possible to fit in all the required instruction in the time available.

The push for more time in school is not limited to Oklahoma. A longer school year is just the latest public school reform idea to spread across the country.

Proponents point to the success of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a nationwide network of charter schools. Students in KIPP schools are at school for at least nine hours a day, for four hours on alternate Saturdays, and for three extra weeks in the summer. Tulsa has a KIPP middle school, which began operating two years ago in the former Woods Elementary Building near Washington High School.

According to the website of KIPP Tulsa College Preparatory Middle School, KIPP students spend 62% more hours in school each year than students at neighboring public schools. In 2006 the school outscored all but three Tulsa middle schools (Carver, Edison, and Thoreau) on the state's Academic Performance Index (API).

But is it just a matter of more hours at school? Deborah Brown Community School, a K-5 charter school located downtown and primarily serving the north Tulsa community, follows a traditional school schedule and calendar. In 2006 DBCS scored a perfect 1500 API, with every student performing satisfactorily in math and reading.

Despite the difference in hours, KIPP and DBCS have several things in common: High standards for teachers, parents, and students, a structured learning environment, and a focus on mastering basic skills and knowledge. As charter schools, KIPP and DBCS are not allowed to screen students based on intelligence or academic record, so they are achieving these results with children with a wide range of abilities.

While some students may benefit from longer hours and more school days, there won't be any benefit if that time is squandered on everything but academic achievement.

Our grandparents and great-grandparents went to school fewer days per year, for fewer hours, without the benefits of computers and DVD players as learning tools, and were often beset by poverty and disease, and yet they were better educated and better prepared for a lifetime of learning after eight years in school than most of today's high school graduates are after 13 or more years.

Their schools succeeded in part because they focused on imparting basic skills and a fundamental body of knowledge - phonics, grammar, spelling, arithmetic, historical names and dates.

Rather than focus on achieving a simple mission, today's public schools are expected to meet every need in a student's life. Federal and state legislators add more and more topics to the list of "essentials" that need to be included in the curriculum. Too frequently, special programs and special speakers disrupt the daily routine.

And the education industry itself seems to prefer spending time on anything but drilling students in the basics.

Activity-based learning is one of the culprits. Gilbert T. Sewall, writing in the Summer 2000 issue of American Educator, reported a growing preference for using skits and special projects to fill up the school day, justified on the grounds that some children aren't naturally geared toward verbal learning.

The problem is that learning activities are a very inefficient way to impart knowledge. Building a papier-mache volcano to learn about the eruption of Vesuvius is fun, but too much time, energy, and attention must be devoted to the mechanics of the activity. You may be spending hours on an activity to teach a fact or idea that could be explained verbally in a few minutes.

Sewall writes, "No one contests some legitimate place for projects and activities in classrooms. But lost in the whirlwind, this doing and doing, is a sense of where the real action should be - in the minds of students. Activities enthusiasts are right not to want passive students. But they have made a dangerous error. They have substituted ersatz activity and shallow content for the hard and serious work of the mind."

While it's important to try to accommodate children with differing learning styles, there's no substitute for memorizing facts and using repetition to teach the rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and arithmetic. There are creative and fun ways to drill and memorize, but learning is hard work.

So is teaching. Growing up with a teacher in the house, I saw the long hours of lesson preparation at home over and above the long hours spent at school. Teachers and students alike are already flirting with burnout by the end of the current school year. Adding three weeks to the school year won't help.

A state mandate to lengthen the school year and the school day would be missing the point. School districts have the right to lengthen the school year if they feel it would be beneficial and if their patrons are willing to fund the extra days.

There's already plenty of time to accomplish the task of learning what's needful. Before we add more time to the school year, let's make better use of the time we have.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on December 12, 2007 1:10 AM.

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