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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 08/19/2011

The right way to lengthen the school year

This is the third part of a debate on time and learning that started with a a post I published Tuesday by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University, about what he called an “absurd” debate on the appropriate length of the school year. He noted that there is no compelling evidence that a longer school year improves student learning. Then yesterday I published a response by Jennifer Davis, co-founder and president of the National Center on Time & Learning, and Emily McCann, president of Citizen Schools. Here is Phillips, once again, responding to the Davis-McCann piece.

By Mark Phillips

I enjoyed reading the column written by the National Center on Time & Learning and Citizen Schools. It was a response to a column I had written about the debate related to lengthening or shortening the school year. I think good respectful professional dialogue on these subjects can only be beneficial for education. I want to respond to that column but to also see if I can shift the debate to a broader challenge.

First, I agree with Davis and McCann that more time on some tasks can be beneficial for some students. I also think more time may be needed in some subjects than in others. However, more time on task for some students could be detrimental. I see high-achieving students who are overloaded with both homework and extra-curricular commitments who are heavily stressed out and are at emotional risk. They may not need more time on task, and I don’t see these kinds of careful distinctions — which students, what kind of time, and in what subjects — being made in the debate about time.

It is well known that KIPP charter schools and others have increased student time on learning tasks and enjoyed some success in improving student achievement. But these schools have also had respected critics. The studies haven’t carefully examined the degree to which the time variable, as opposed to others such as increased parent involvement, excellent teacher recruitment, and higher expectations, have played a role. There has been no careful probing for any negative side effects of the approaches being used. Student emotional health, as one example, almost never seems to make its way into any studies of student outcomes. Nor have the studies been longitudinal, looking at where these students are four or five years after graduation socially, emotionally, educationally, or occupationally.

The research studies referred to have validated what the schools were hoping would be validated. But they have also been limited and flawed.

That said, it is worth repeating that more time on some tasks for some students can be beneficial.

Regarding the argument that project-based learning gets squeezed out of the school day because there isn’t enough time, well, that’s weak. Yes it does get squeezed out if teachers and administrators can’t figure out how to effectively integrate project-based learning so that it helps teach major concepts and basics skills. If project-based learning is perceived as an either-or choice pitted against providing critical learning for achievement tests, of course it may be squeezed out. The problem is one of limited pedagogical conceptualization and skills.

The column makes a debatable assertion regarding student internships and community-based learning experiences, saying that wealthy communities can provide these as after-school experiences. Most of the wealthy communities around here do not see these as valuable as raising achievement scores, getting good grades and getting into the best colleges. But some schools that serve low-income and lower-middle class kids place a heavy focus on those activities, integrating them into the present school year very effectively. It is really all about priorities and the planning skills to carry this out, not about the wealth of the school district.

The real problem with these debates is that they all take place within the narrow confines of an educational paradigm that is itself moribund, an anachronism.

We still conceptualize learning as taking place in classrooms, during a very set school day, across a very set school year, not very different from the way we did seventy years ago. We see learners in many of the same ways we saw them 20 years ago. We still define subject areas essentially the same way, despite changes that should have us carefully re-examining the designations. All of this continues despite monumental social and technological changes. We still see school as the primary educator, despite the fact that students spend more time watching television and/or on the Web than they do in classrooms. As a culture we still place a very limited and fairly low value on the occupation of teacher.

In essence, all our debates, including this one, are related to what can be described as first-order change, change that doesn’t change the system itself. That’s why I refer to Finland, where at least the value placed on the teacher, undoubtedly a more important variable than time on task, is markedly different.

We need second-order change. We need a new paradigm. I’d be happy to advocate more time for schooling if schooling consisted of an integration of community-based learning, the Iinternet, wilderness experiences, and internships, with the classroom as the command post that ties all of these to learning basic skills and concepts.

The educational year (not the “in school” year) might well be much longer. And, oh yes, in this reconceptualized world of American education teachers would also be valued highly, recruited and trained as they are in Finland, and paid $125,000 a year.

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By  |  04:00 AM ET, 08/19/2011

 
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