Learning Shouldn't Be Dictated by the School Calendar

By Jay Mathews
Monday, August 31, 2009

Maybe our whole back-to-school tradition is the problem.

We think of education as a year-to-year thing. Start school in late summer. Finish in late spring. Then repeat. Learning doesn't work like that. Our fixation on the calendar is getting in the way.

When I was young, I didn't understand that. I accepted the rhythms set by my parents and teachers. So it was a shock to leave school and discover that when working and raising a family, it no longer mattered so much what time of year it was. I had to get that kid potty-trained, and soon! I had to write that story. I had to convince the foreign editor I could succeed overseas. I had to find a publisher for that book idea. I had to master new skills and absorb new information quickly and competently, or my plans for myself and my family were in jeopardy.

The Post tried giving standard job evaluations, sort of grown-up June report cards, but they didn't last. My job was to produce stories that interested readers, a real-world test not tied to the calendar.

As we welcome another back-to-school day Monday in Montgomery and Howard counties, we should keep in mind how artificial that learning environment is compared with what students will find as adults. At The Post, for instance, I have had to learn to blog. For a while, I pretended that I did not have to do this. When I finally, grudgingly, started writing blog posts, I acted as if they were just short stories for the paper. I sent them to my editor and asked him to put them on my blog. I put off learning to do it myself. I used vacation, bad weather or sniffles to excuse myself from training. But I wasn't in school anymore. The Post wasn't going to give me a report card with a C-minus in blogging and ask me to do better next year.

The academic calendar inspires similarly bad habits in schools. Parents and teachers conspire each spring to clean up weaknesses in the records of some children so they can be promoted to the next grade. Some urban high school teachers have told me of panic attacks every April, when only half of the senior class appears qualified to graduate. Extra-credit projects materialize. Grade book calculations are readjusted. Magically, the graduating class grows to about the same size as last year's.

Educators have been trying for more than a century to make lessons more like what students will find in real life. Philosopher John Dewey started a movement with a concept he called experiential education. His disciples have tried to introduce projects -- putting out a class newspaper has been a favorite -- so students learn by doing. You can find examples of this in many schools, but the old just-get-through- the-year mentality still reigns. It is difficult to cover all that I wanted to learn as a student, and I wanted my children to learn, in a nontraditional, project-driven format. Deborah Meier, Dennis Littky and other free-thinking educators have made headway with impoverished urban teenagers, but they are exceptions.

Still, we have some promising examples of teaching methods that have broken away from the back-to-school model. The Chugach School District in Alaska raised reading scores from the 28th to the 71st percentile in five years with a program that let students move at an individual pace, mastering one concept before moving to the next. Year-round schedules, like those in a few area elementary schools, reduce the long summer gap that is so harmful to children whose parents aren't equipped to keep them intellectually active at home. Rigorous exams independent of the classroom teacher, like Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, are still tied to the calendar but present a real-world, college-level challenge. Some schools have senior projects or long research papers judged by outside experts, like the oral final exams given to Meier's students.

A new school model called High Tech High is getting good early reviews for its project-based teaching. It is one of several ventures said to be part of what promoters call the 21st-century skills movement. Somewhere John Dewey is chuckling, because he had the idea in the 1890s.

The work, not the season, should be the focus. Creating something useful to other people (click on my blog!) should be part of school. Everything should not ride on a letter grade in June.

I liked showing up the first day of school with a fresh binder and newly sharpened pencils. But it might have been better if I had been told to raise a family of hamsters, or direct a Shakespeare play, or serve a three-course meal. How would school have turned out for me if I had been able to ignore what grade I was in and skip ahead to the pleasures of J.D. Salinger, or stay out on the ball field for a week until I finally learned how to catch a fly ball?

I would still have yearned for that end-of-school report card, which I used to justify my existence. I would have complained that I was too young to handle all those new demands, just as I now complain I'm too old. But it would have been more intriguing and engaging, I realize now, than the same old back-to-school day, and its assumption that we can only progress in nine-month intervals.


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