In eight years of teaching high school students in both private and public schools, I've learned that on the subject of education their ideas are often sounder and their opinions sharper than what's coming from the on-high experts and theorists. Two of them, in particular.
Thomas A. Shannon, director of the National School Boards Association, is pushing for a 12-month academic year. No summer idleness, either for students or school buildings. In Massachusetts, Michael Barrett, a state senator, has introduced a bill to extend the school year from 180 to 220 days.
Both of these time-savers are fretting that compared with other countries the United States is encouraging laziness and ignorance by its short school year. Students in Japan, West Germany, South Korea, Israel and Luxembourg all have a minimum of 210 calendar days of class. No slackers there.
Barrett, as if scratching his fingernails on the blackboard to make us dolts understand, writes in the current Atlantic Monthly:
"First, compared with their peers in Asian and European countries, American students stand out for how little they work. Second, compared with Asians and Europeans, American students stand out for how poorly they do." Barrett believes a school year of 220 days is an essential reform -- "a superstructure under which other changes can be made."
The unsuper arguments from Shannon and Barrett have been regularly thrown into the education hopper since the late 1940s -- and just as regularly rejected. The longer-is-better theorists -- Barrett recently spent a day teaching seventh-graders, so his experiential knowledge is vast -- are like teachers who begin each class, "Let's get started, we have a lot of ground to cover." This is the track coach method, substituting pages in a book for yardage.
Teachers intent on covering ground won't be any better at their craft with 220 days than at 180. An inspired teacher can change a student's life -- rouse the imagination, stir once-hidden powers of the intellect -- in a day, week or month. Extra teaching talent, not extra time, is needed.
This theme ran through the papers I asked my students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School to write. A young man offered this:
"The problem does not lie in the number of days students attend class but in keeping students enthusiastic about learning. ... Instead of being followers of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, why doesn't America use its innovative spirit and reconstruct its educational program, not by adding days but by adding stimulation to the classroom."
On the issue that the young waste their time in June, July and August, a senior woman wrote: "Nothing is like experiencing life firsthand by spending a few months in nature, in another country, living with another culture or working at an office or in Congress. I learned more about myself this summer when I traveled with the circus than in four years of high school."
A third student asked: "If people are so concerned about education, why don't they increase the amount of money available for teacher salaries? It is hard to attract good educators to teach when they earn little money."
Students are right to resist the call for a longer academic year. They know it means more time in custody, not just in class. The issue is more money, not more schooling. With 70 percent of federal research-and-development funds going into military programs and less than 2 percent to education, the message is obvious: Soldiers are more valued than students, weapons over wisdom.
Despite the generosity of a few corporations, private money to schools is niggardly. Robert Reich reports in the current issue of The American Prospect that corporate largess is seldom showered upon public primary or secondary schools: "Of the $2.6 billion contributed to education in 1989, only $156 million went to support the public schools (about 6 percent); the rest went to colleges and universities (especially the nation's most prestigious, which the firms' CEOs were likely to have attended), and to private preparatory schools (ditto)." Public schools received only 1.8 percent of all corporate donations.
Calls for a longer school year are like parents lengthening the time for the family's dinner. If there's little or nothing to eat, why bother? Schools are famished for money. I've never had a student who didn't know that.