Kudos to Patrick Welsh for risking the ire of special interest groups with his informed criticism of the long summer vacation ["Out of School, Out of Touch," Outlook, June 20]. Of all the proposals for improving education, increasing the length of the school year has generated the least attention. Indeed, two days after Mr. Welsh's article appeared, Sens. John F. Kerry and Gordon H. Smith offered an op-ed piece ["It's Education, Stupid," June 22] that contained almost every buzzword in the educational reform lexicon, yet never mentioned the critical issue of time on task.
Lengthening the school year was a prime recommendation of the National Commission on Excellence in Education's 1983 report: "A Nation at Risk." The authors wrote: "In England and other industrialized countries, it is not unusual for academic high school students to spend eight hours a day at school, 220 days per year." A 1989 report by the D.C. Committee on Public Education also called for a longer school year, and noted, "In Japan, fifth grade students spend 50 percent more time in school than do their U.S. counterparts."
Defenders of the status quo point out that lengthening the school year would be expensive. Yet other countries, not known to be profligate with the public purse, have concluded that the results justify the expense. What taxpayers ought to resent is paying to have material that should have been mastered in high school revisited in college -- an outcome that has become routine even in "selective" colleges. They also should question the wisdom of having the expensive computer technology they paid for sit idle for 2 1/2 months each summer.
The most tragic waste, of course, is the young brain. Like any other muscle, it does not shut down for extended periods without consequence. Parents who can will provide alternatives, but the children who most need help will not be so fortunate.