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Thursday, Aug. 27, 2009 02:58 pm

Six days a week

The case for a real year-around school calendar

Dr. Newton Bateman
A while back, I remarked on the spreading use of the so-called year-round school calendar to remedy so-called summer learning loss. (See “The Pause that Regresses,” Aug. 13.) The start of another real new school year brings to mind questions left unasked in that piece. What about the learning that is lost the rest of the year? Is the problem with the school calendar that it is unbalanced, or that it is too short?

 Illinoisans have never been keen on sending their kids to school. By the time the 1890 edition of School Laws and Common School Decisions of the State of Illinois was published, the minimum term was 110 days. The author of that work was Newton Bateman, who believed, as did so many reformers of the era, that education was a universal remedy for what ailed humankind. “Nine months is none too long” a school year, he wrote.

Bateman’s nine-month year eventually became the norm, insofar as instruction is spread across nine months. But Illinois law requires that only 176 days be devoted to “pupil attendance” — fewer if one adjusts for the half-days that count as full days. If one further allows for the summer learning loss, which means that a month’s worth of those days might as well never have happened, the effective school year is barely 150 days long. You can’t teach a dog how to fetch a stick in so few days, much less teach a ninth-grader to speak French.

In much of the rest of what we are pleased to call the developed world, a parent who sent her child to school for as few as 176 days would find a social worker on her doorstep asking rude questions. The nations of Western Europe and Asia do not treat school as a break between vacations. OECD countries demand 25 more school days each year than does Illinois. East Asian countries — the South Koreas and Chinas — require more than 200, as does Israel.

Kids in such systems learn more (as measured by standardized tests) than ours, even though less money is spent on each of them than in the U.S. Nor is their success merely an artifact of testing. I have become accustomed to meeting Europeans who are fluent in more than one language and who know nearly as much about U.S. history and politics as I do. What I am not used to is their so often being 14 or 15 years old.

The possibility that America is falling behind in the grind race stirs no outrage in most parents, however much it exercises our economists and business recruiters. Many Americans cherish the notion that schooling is an extracurricular activity to the real business of the young, which is being young. The notion that kids might profitably work as hard at learning (within limits) as their parents work at earning strikes them as perverse.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
But would more schooling do anything more than deepen the market for the test-makers? Arne Duncan — the Presidential basketball buddy and former Chicago Public School superintendent who now holds the job — thinks so. In April, Duncan said in a speech that not only is the school year in the U.S. too short, but the school day is too brief and so is the school week. (American children are in class roughly 32 hours a week, Swedish kids on average attend for 60). Duncan said that American schoolchildren need to be in class six days a week, at least 11 months a year.

Usually, the endorsement of a new idea by a U.S. Secretary of Education is the dull eye in a fish, a sure sign that something is wrong with it even if it looks appetizing. The children of the affluent and the ambitious in this country perform at nearly the level of the world’s best, in part because, unlike the average American mope, they learn year around. When not in school, they are enrolled in summer enrichment programs or closeted with tutors or engrossed in some improving hobby. (Kids from such backgrounds actually improve their school performance over summer breaks.)

A genuinely year-around program would subject the able kids to instruction and experience that is more mediocre than what they get privately, thus holding them back. Meanwhile, the longer hours would probably have only marginal improvements on the rest; a kid who can’t learn in nine months is unlikely to be able to learn in 12.

Is the problem how many hours a kid spends in a conventional classroom, or whether a conventional classroom is where she should be spending them? Kids who spend more time in a good school will indeed learn more, but more time in a poor one (or the wrong kind of one) is likely to have the opposite effect, resulting in more truancy and dropping out. Indeed, for a lot of kids, the remedy to poor performance might be spending less time in school — and more of it learning.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at
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