“And Such Small Portions…”

Obama wants to lengthen the school year and the school day. Probably the school week is the next target. Like the educational experts who have been suggesting all this extra time for the last twenty years, he has several different rationales. First, of course, the original school year was set up for an agrarian society in which the kids had to be home during the summer to tend to the crops. That’s quite true, and makes the classic June-through-August vacation an anachronism. Moreover, the data are pretty clear that such a long time out between school terms really does cause most kids to lose some of the learning they had accomplished the previous spring by the time they come back in the fall. So the longer school year has some solid facts behind it.

But, as the AP article points out (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090927/ap_on_re_us/us_mor), a longer school year doesn’t have to mean a longer school day: “Kids in the U.S. spend more hours in school (1,146 instructional hours per year) than do kids in the Asian countries that persistently outscore the U.S. on math and science tests — Singapore (903), Taiwan (1,050), Japan (1,005) and Hong Kong (1,013). That is despite the fact that Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong have longer school years (190 to 201 days) than does the U.S. (180 days).” And AP isn’t even looking at European nations that start kids in school later (in Denmark and Sweden, as late as age 7), or with shorter school days than ours (in France, 8:30 AM to 2:30 PM with a 2-hour lunch break until age 11), that still have better literacy and graduation rates than we do. Whatever it is that American schools are doing in the classroom, it is not at all clear that more of it would be helpful to the students. It sounds too much like the irate restaurant patron who complains that the food is terrible and the portions are too small.

In fact, anyone who has worked with adult literacy programs can verify that it shouldn’t and usually doesn’t take anywhere near 12 years—even with current summer vacation and school day schedules–to teach what most high school graduates come out knowing. Note also that summer vacation has already suffered considerable abbreviation in many school districts. The whole idea of Labor Day as the last long weekend of summer (meaning, presumably, children’s summer vacation) now makes no sense at all. Almost all public schools start up around the middle of August these days, and many don’t shut down for the summer until nearly the end of June. (Which is a good argument for moving Memorial Day into late June and Labor Day into early August, but I digress.)
Compressing the school year even more than we are already doing may make sense, but lengthening the school day really doesn’t.

In fact, the justifications for a longer school day are entirely different, and a lot less plausible, than those for a longer school year. Obama (and most of the other people one hears declaiming on the subject) are mostly concerned, not about education, but about safety. “Those hours from 3 o’clock to 7 o’clock are times of high anxiety for parents,” [Secretary of Education Arne] Duncan sa[ys]. “They want their children safe. Families are working one and two and three jobs now to make ends meet and to keep food on the table.”

Yes, those safety concerns are valid. But what do they have to do with school? Why should professionally-educated adults who should be home grading today’s papers and preparing tomorrow’s lessons have to function as baby-sitters to keep Johnny from getting shot? That’s the job of recreation directors and supervisors, or at worst, of cops. And even more to the point, why should kids have to be on task and programmed for 8 hours a day, just because their parents are? At that point, the arguments against child labor start to fade into insignificance. When do the kids get to just “chill with their friends”? Or have we already accepted the premise that an unsupervised, unprogrammed child is a child at risk of crime, sex, drugs, or obesity, and that the only way to save our children from these dread fates is to subject them to the same scheduling that has already shredded the emotional and physical health of their parents and destroyed the family life that used to keep the children safe?

But, now that we have decided that all more or less able-bodied adults must spend at least 40 hours a week being paid to work for somebody else, we have also decided that anybody who looks after children has to be paid. For more recent data, see:
http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5intayNnUex0u2p2aPfl95SZitE9QD9B15QLO0 and

And, no, none of this has anything to do with feminism. It is mainly connected to stagnant wages and rising fixed living costs such as housing, health care, transportation, and education. Most stay-at-home mothers don’t view themselves as having chosen to stay home. See: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-census-momsoct02,0,3742466.story for why most stay-at-home mothers are younger, less educated, and have more children than the rest of the female population, so that their prospective earnings are lower and their child care costs would be higher.

I mention these stories because they have all hit the Web in the last 24 hours. But they do a lot to prove my point that the main reason we really want our kids to spend more time in school is that it’s the cheapest way to free parents to put in 40+ hours a week earning money. Once cryogenics has been perfected, we can keep our kids in a deep freeze until a couple of years before they are old enough to work. We can spend the intervening time teaching them what today’s high school graduates know, and go on from there. O brave new world, that hath such people in it!


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