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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 08/16/2011

The ‘absurd’ debate about length of school year

This was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.

By Mark Phillips

I was one of those kids who looked forward to September and the beginning of school. Yes, it used to be September, right after Labor Day, and there’s something still strange to me about school resuming in mid-August, as it does here in Marin, California. Summer was long and a time of free play, odd jobs, and no morning alarm clock. But the start of the new school year was filled with anticipation. I liked learning. I liked being back with lots of kids.

As this new school year begins, I’ve been looking at the recent contradictory calls for a still longer school year, supposedly to increase achievement, and for a shorter school year to save money. Both proposals seem absurd, though maybe it’s always the “silly season” when it comes to public education in the United States.

President Obama, still “my man,” but rarely my favorite educational thinker, has talked about increasing the length of the school year so that our achievement can be more competitive with other countries.

I disagree. The research provides no compelling evidence that a longer school year improves student learning. Finland, a country with high achievement rates, has just a few more instructional days. The major variables differentiating us from Finland have nothing to do with instructional time.

Actually, given the overwhelming evidence of excessive stress in adolescents today, perhaps more unscheduled time and less time on task would both promote adolescent mental health and increase academic motivation.

But now we have some districts across the U.S. shortening the school year or the school week, because of budget cuts. One Arizona superintendent spoke for many of these advocates, noting that the length of the school year won’t effect student achievement. “Good teachers are going to be good teachers on four or five days.” Apart from the fact that this truism hardly addresses the issue, the comment reflects the simplistic mentality displayed by these advocates.

Michael Kirst, president of the California State Board of Education, answering this argument, points to research that shows that a shorter school year

would impact student learning, especially in subjects like algebra, which involve teaching a very specific set of concepts during the year. Teachers may simply not have enough time to get to all of them.

None of these discussions look at the possible impact on families of a shorter school week or year. These actions shift the burden from the government to families who would then have to deal with the problem of childcare. What else is new?!

I think these arguments miss the real problem of how we look at the relationship between learning and time. Each of them is in the category of the tail wagging the dog. Again, our habits of thought when it comes to public education don’t meet minimal standards of effective problem solving.

The primary question should be this: What is it that students need to learn in each subject and how can schools best increase this learning? The key variables in learning are student motivation and teacher skills. Neither are functions of the amount of time devoted to a subject.

In every subject the focus should be on what is most critical to know that can be retained and applied. If we think along the lines of the old history teacher adage “we have to get to the Civil War by Christmas time!” we’re in real trouble. To teach all the ever-increasing facts about history or information in science, we’d need to triple the length of the school year!

We do need to think about time, but in a different way. If we think in terms of concepts and skills, the variable of time takes on a new dimension. If we addressed this effectively, we’d probably find that some courses should be longer than other courses. But of course we don’t do that. Quick amputations or expansions avoid that complex analysis and restructuring. This is typical of how we make educational decisions.

And what if the actual time in school was cut to provide more time for coordinated student internships and community based learning experiences, not because of budgetary problems? Just a thought.

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By  |  05:00 AM ET, 08/16/2011

Categories:  Mark Phillips

 
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