Stop Patching Education!

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle and a forty-year veteran math teacher.

This is the first in a series of rants from a frustrated educational writer.

At the intersection of politics and education the refrain is always the same.

In a recent flurry of solutions for the plight of education in America the potential answers are basically a summary of the usual suspects. The proposals include increasing school choice, incorporating more charter schools, allowing students to “backpack” their federal funding and, of course, more accountability through testing.

The problem with these cures and others of a similar ilk is that they do not address the fundamental problem—creating an educational environment which will produce more appropriate learning and graduates prepared for succeeding in the world of 2020.

The numbers tell the story

The biggest problem in education is waste. This form of mismanagement is not, however, related to the poor utilization of funding. Rather it is the incredible mismanagement of educational time. Foremost among these misguided actions is the totally outdated agrarian calendar that is at the center of virtually every school system in the country.

When looked at from a mathematical viewpoint the manner in which children in the United States attend school is appalling. The vast majority of academic calendars include 180 or so days of instruction spread over a 43-week period. Even a relatively small adjustment to that approach could create significant changes in potential learning. If that number were increased by a very modest 20 days (11%), the additional learning time would be remarkable. Twenty days over eleven years translates into 220 more days in class.

Equally important would be the decrease in the “remedial” review time required at the beginning of every school year as a result of the lengthy “summer” vacation. Most teachers will tell you that the restart of school especially in skill-based classes requires at least three weeks (15 days) of relearning what was lost over the nine weeks away from the classroom. If reducing the time between the end of school and the beginning to five weeks would eliminate ten of those days the gain over eleven years would be another 165.

So what would all of this mean? By lengthening the educational calendar to 200 days, in eleven years the typical student would gain the equivalent of about 385 additional interactions with teachers (220+165).  In terms of the old 180-day schedule that would be a boost of more than two years.

Who will pay for this increase?

The short answer is nobody. That is because it will pay for itself.

By enlarging the school year, American schools can shorten educational careers.  The math is quite simple. Twelve years under the current system results in 2160 school days (12 x 180). Increasing by 20 days creates over eleven years 2200 classes (11 x 200). Add in the potential of 165 less for review and the number becomes 2365. When comparing those two totals (2160 vs. 2365) it becomes conceivable that in one less year students will receive nearly 10% more class time. Such an increase spread over eleven years would greatly enhance a teacher’s opportunity to improve instruction. The additional teacher compensation for the extra 20 days would be offset by reducing staff in a system that concludes after the eleventh grade.

Of course if more than 20 days were added the numbers would become even more favorable.

Win, win, win and win

There would be a plethora of good outcomes from such a change to the typical school calendar.

Teaching jobs would become more attractive. An increase of 10% or more in salary plus eliminating the need to look for summer employment could attract additional people to the profession. The derogatory label of “part-time” job could be retired. And, of course, educating could become more effective.

Students will do better without the extended summer vacation. If “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” then describing a nine to ten week hiatus from education would have to employ catastrophic terminology. There is little doubt that these long breaks can contribute to elevated dropout rates. Reduced academic success, boredom and misbehavior and disconnecting an adolescent from schoolwork are potent forces in discouraging the pursuit of a diploma.

School facilities would be more fully utilized. Educational buildings are remarkable structures. The typical high school has an extensive library with some of the best technology available, gymnasium(s) with locker rooms, weight training equipment, a cafeteria featuring large institutional-level kitchens in addition to specialized classrooms, theaters and art rooms. And yet for far too much of the year these amazing resources sit idle. The addition of school days will alleviate this somewhat. (This is a topic that will be the singular focus of a future post)

The final victory resulting from this change would be to allow politicians to shift their attention to other issues. Actually that might be the best outcome of all.

Next: Failure should be an option

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