September 27, 2009

king philip cried out for green soup

9/27/09

This just in: President Obama wants to make the school year longer, and possibly the school day longer as well. I get the reasoning behind it: the USA has begun to lag dangerously behind the rest of the developed world in education, and our current system is based on atavistic rules stemming from farmer kids planting and harvesting crops.

Shit, if you want to cry for America's future, just take a look at this test given to high school kids in Oklahoma: 77% couldn't name our first President, and 57% couldn't name the two political parties in America. These are the people we're going to have to deal with for the rest of our lives, my friends. [UPDATE: this poll is most likely totally bogus -ed.]

But I don't think lengthening the school year or the school day is the right thing to do; in fact, I think it should be shortened. School is like a regular office job in America - you spend vast, untold hours of the day doing absolutely fucking NOTHING. Before your start sending me emails, YES, I KNOW THERE ARE PLENTY OF EXCEPTIONS, but if most office workers were truly honest, they'll tell you they could blitz through their work in two hours and go home, if only the Man would let them.

The same applies for school. The inefficiency of time is stunning. If school were radically rethought, so that students had an immersion course in two subjects for a month instead of seven subjects spread out over four, I'd bet test scores would explode.

Think of it: say October is Biology and Early American History month. You spend all morning for a month immersed in experiments/dissection/taxonomy, and all afternoon diving into the lives of the Mohicans, Henry Hudson, and John Peter Zenger. Put on plays, make videos, kick ass, nobody is left behind.

henry-hudson(bl).jpg
Hank Hudson, yo

Think it won't work? Ever been to summer school? Lifetime math failures get A's in summer school, and I was one of them.

Also, with the different schedule, you can start class an hour later when teenagers are actually able to function. I've mentioned this before, but school should never start before 9:30am, for a host of reasons linked in that blog entry. I mean, why does school have to be so goddamn miserable, when you can actually increase test scores, aptitude, sports and happiness by letting kids sleep another hour?

Here's the other thing about lengthening the school year - the 3-month summer vacation is truly a national treasure. Not only can you actually live somewhere else for the summer (if you have the means), but those three months allow a teenager to reinvent themselves, especially if they didn't particularly like the phase they were in. It's a bit of a "reset" button.

I've done the European school thing, with the 6-week summer, and it sucked. Sure, the crazy month-long Easter break was pretty awesome, but give me the unending possibility of a vast summer over 6 weeks of impending doom anytime.

I dunno, maybe I'm the wrong person to ask. I fucking hated school and have spent years on this blog whining about it. But I thought school was a jail sentence, and if we re-imagined the whole thing, kids like me wouldn't. We'd actually be psyched to throw ourselves in each subject, giving it 100%, immersing ourselves with the kind of intensity that comes from knowing it won't last long.

Posted by Ian Williams at September 27, 2009 10:29 PM
Comments
Posted by: Anne at September 28, 2009 4:13 AM

Less school? Oh, Ian. Just wait until you have teenagers. Or maybe Lucy will be the shining exception. What I don't want is kids free to roam around and get into shit all day. Most of us are working parents, we're not here to enrich our kids' lives 24/7. When they're little, you can get a great nanny to take up the slack, but not so much when they're 13, 14, 15, and so on. "Live somewhere else for the summer" -- umm, not on my planet, where I live in my office most of the summer. Yes, my response is mostly about parents, not kids' desires re: school. But after stepparenting and parenting since the age of 21 (I am almost 58!), and working for all but 7 months of that time, I have a little experience.

We need better schools, teachers who engage and inspire, curricula that challenge and allow students to proceed at whatever galloping (or not) pace they are capable of. Not less school. (IMHO!)

Posted by: Jason Savage at September 28, 2009 4:55 AM

disagree about starting school later than 9:30. people have to have some sort of sense that the world starts earlier than they would like, or else they'd do about an eight year slide of sleep-ins, only to have their ass kicked by the working world's starting gun.

Posted by: Lfmd at September 28, 2009 5:19 AM

Ian, you know I adore you, but this is one of the most elitist posts you have written! I agree with Anne and Jason.

The "live somewhere else for the summer" line nearly made me cry in my cubicle. Do you really know people who can do that? I thought I was lucky to have 5 weeks of paid vacation, but apparently I have been missing out.

Hugs, Laurie

Posted by: Anne at September 28, 2009 5:26 AM

One more thought that I had as I drove our son to school: HOME SCHOOLING. If the parents' time is as flexible and unpredictable as your premise seems to describe, this is a perfect option. The home schooling could be provided by a tutor if the parent weren't interested or qualified.

Personally, as a former excruciatingly shy person, I cannot imagine missing the crucible of school as a place where I made friends, collaborated in group learning projects and after-school activities, and pried myself out of the safe cocoon of our home every day... great practice for the "real world" of responsible adulthood.

Posted by: the other Lee at September 28, 2009 5:54 AM

I think I would have enjoyed school a lot more if I wasn't stuck in the class with idiots who did nothing but put in their time, distract everyone, drag the rest of the class down to their pace and bore the crap out of the 10-20% of us who actually cared or had aptitude for education.

if saying that out loud makes me an elitist then fine, I'm an elitist.

Posted by: Kelly in NC at September 28, 2009 6:00 AM

I agree with Anne and Jason above. It's time to get serious about reforming (improving? whatever you want to call it) our public shool system.

We live in a town of about 25,000. My 4 kids attend a public elementary school of just under 400 students, 75% of whom are on free or reduced lunch. The shool is 37% Hispanic and I'd say English is a 2nd language for most of those.

I say all this just to illustrate a few of the obstacles teachers must deal with in addition to (or in conjuction with) the main business of teaching.

I understand that we are in a recession and all states are strapped for cash, but one of the main goals of the PTO this year is to raise money to buy sports equipment for the PE teacher. I understand that it's "just" PE but how do you teach a kid to play baseball without a bat or gloves? It's like trying to teach music without instruments. Oh wait. We're trying to raise money for that, too. As well as buy books for teachers and the library.

Last year, the school ran out of copier paper and couldn't buy any more. This year I know teachers whose supply lists to students included dry erase markers and a ream of paper. So we're now asking students to provide office supplies for the school.

Can't we do better than this?

Posted by: CM at September 28, 2009 6:23 AM

I agree with the post. The school year is long enough. Let kids be kids when it's that hot out. Maybe 9:30 is a bit late, but what was the point of having to get to high school at 7:30?? Then again, I don't have kids yet, so maybe I will change my mind.

However, some of the 'wasted time' during the schoolday or at office jobs is necessary. We all have emotional stuff and personal stuff to deal with while we are dealing with our jobs, etc. Sometimes you need a little time in the middle of the day to take care of it so you can get back to what you were doing.

Posted by: CM at September 28, 2009 6:25 AM

Kelly writes:

"Last year, the school ran out of copier paper and couldn't buy any more. This year I know teachers whose supply lists to students included dry erase markers and a ream of paper. So we're now asking students to provide office supplies for the school."

That is ridiculous!!

The schoolday or year doesn't need to be longer. Schools should be BETTER, not longer. And yes, teachers have to deal with too much non-teaching stuff; it is not their fault.

Posted by: Ian at September 28, 2009 7:09 AM

Yeah, so I'm elitist, what part of that was so surprising?

I did mention "if you have the means". But feel free to ignore that sentence if it obscures the larger point...

Posted by: FreshPaul at September 28, 2009 7:21 AM

A few things that are often overlooked when the maxim that foreign students in industrialized nations are out-performing US students blah blah blah:

-only a select minority of students in those countries are actually tested...they've usually been screened since 7-8th grade for aptitude and have only studied their specific academic field since that time. Those students are quite differently prepared to take subject-specific tests than the broad spectrum of American students. It's indicative of a different set of educational priorities. I daresay that our brightest students would do just as well in the same circumstances. In other words, if US Schools went to a format similar to English A-levels, we'd see similar or better results. otherwise, such comparisons are tiring and like comparing apples to pineapples.

-every one of those countries that participate in such internationally moderated testing have a highly nationalized education system...the inertia against that in the US is quite powerful. In my view, we should either nationalize US education, where the DoE sets standards and steps out of the way in the pedagogical means to meet those standards (ie, the exact opposite of NCLB), or we do away with the ruse of a national educational administration. At the very least, making US education nationalized would stop some of the tired bitching about our students' performance viz. students in other countries where they perform under a rigid national structure and are selected from early adolescence into a track (academic or vocational) and a specific field within academia once they get into high school.

each system has its merits and demerits, but comparing US students and other students around the world on those specific criteria out of context is asinine.

Posted by: Big Scott at September 28, 2009 7:36 AM

I agree wholeheartedly that our education system is a work in progress, but quoting statistics from a telephone survey done by a conservative think tank in Oklahoma doesn't really pass the smell test for me. Seems like yet another case of lies, damn lies and statistics to me. If I were taking that phone call when I was in high school, the chances would be 50-50 that I'd get 9 or 10 right or get 0 or 1 right depending on whether or not I felt like screwing around with whoever was asking such ridiculous questions in a telephone survey. I'm pretty sure that a few of those kids answered, "I don't know," just to get off of the phone to go and do something worthwhile. If you want to look at some statistics, try these out for size -- http://nces.ed.gov/timss/results07.asp . Not a completely rosy picture and it's talking about math and science instead of civics, but it's a little more methodologically sound than calling up a bunch of teenagers on the phone to give them a pop quiz.

That being said, there is tremendous room for improvement in our schools, even the best of them. I don't think the answer is in a longer school day or a shorter one, but rather, a reorganization of what goes on in the average American classroom. There are some incredible statistics in the TIMSS study that came out in 1997 that said that only 15-20% of class time in American classrooms that were involved in the study was devoted to covering new material. The rest was administrative time, going over old homework, assigning new homework and working on homework. This compares to about 75-80% of class time spent on covering new material in Japan, which consistently scores higher than the US in virtually every international education study. They also have a national, peer-reviewed curriculum for each subject with lesson plans and supporting materials that free up teachers to actually teach the children. Try to float the idea of national curricula in this country though and you're shouted down before the words are all the way out of your mouth.

Education is a complex issue and getting consensus on it is really difficult, but to me it seems like this problem gets solved the way most other ones get solved: get a bunch of smart people in a room, figure out what works and then get as many people as you can doing the things that work. Not easy, but not as difficult as it is right now, either. If people would just put away ideology and pet projects in the interest of getting things done, I think we could see improvements in education without lengthening or shortening the school day.

Posted by: mom at September 28, 2009 7:42 AM

I could write a whole essay... no, a whole book, on what I think school should be. But I won't do that here. After 12 years of teaching, covering all the elementary and middle and high school grades, and several years of college teaching (including "methods" classes for teacher candidates), I often found myself dreaming of what school SHOULD be, and isn't. Not even close. And my dream is not about a free, open sort of new-age kind of classroom that many advocates in the last century tried to create. I want us all to work harder, play harder, create more, read more, think better…

Yes, of course, we need better teachers, but in my fantasy world, that’s only the beginning.

Yes, school should NOT start at 7:30... that's just nuts. But 9 is fine. Ian, even YOUR warped circadian rhythms could cope with that.

Yes, school day and school year should be longer. The day should be long enough to include time for lots of "free play" or supervised organized games (or PE at upper grade levels). And music. And art. Beyond that, the extended day, if there were enough variety, could 1) keep the kids somewhere safe and productive until parents get home from work. And 2) allow time for doing what is now called "homework." Which brings me to:

There should be NO HOMEWORK. At any level. Kids should go home without a 20-pound backpack, and a ton of busy work to do at the kitchen table. It could all be done AT SCHOOL with the help of teachers and aides to make sure that kids understand the work they have been introduced to during the day. Homework should consist of reading ONLY. Reading is crucial, even if the kids have to be read TO by parents at home. But there is simply NO way to apportion out the homework, sometimes for several subject areas, so that a kid doesn't end up spending a whole night or a whole weekend plowing through a ton of repetitive or boring paperwork to haul back to school.

Yes, concentrating on a few subjects at a time, alternating and team teaching is a great idea, and the efficacy is proved by the kids who thrive on intense, compressed summer-school classes. (Also verified by the great experience my two oldest sons had when they were put into a "mentally gifted" program for 5th and 6th grades, Those kids finished all the “state requirements” in basal subjects by Halloween and spent the rest of the school year in intense, exciting, experimental, and mind-expanding activities, learning, invention, etc. I am convinced that you don't have to be "mentally gifted" to benefit from the intense one or two subjects at a time approach. Lots of colleges do it with interesting and usually successful results)

Yes, the school year could be longer. Not by much, but two months of vacation rather than three is enough. Teachers would balk, I know, since they like (as I did) the freedom of the long summer, but I think by the end of a second month of vacation, everyone, teachers, kids, and parents, are mentally and emotionally ready to get back to business.

When I was teaching, I used to dream of a school day where I could spend enough time to keep up with all the students, helping the ones who ran into trouble, giving the quicker ones exciting projects to do, with lots of breaks for physical, musical, or art-related respites, in order to replenish their (and my) spirit and mind.

None of this is going to happen, alas. I'd have to be a multi-billionaire who could open a free private school somewhere, hire a bunch of inspired teachers and teacher aids, musicians, artists, and athletes, buy musical instruments and sports equipment, make the school day last from nine to four-thirty, and the school vacation from July 1 to Labor Day. Make the winter holiday three or four weeks long, with optional music or drama centered classes and activities in January for kids whose parents could not spend a month skiing in Aspen. Dot the school year with student concerts, performances, art shows, athletic contests and demonstrations. Abolish homework. Completely reinvent the way we learn, the way we “teach” and inspire learning. I’d love to do it for a decade or so and just see what happens.

Oops. I wrote an essay. Sorry, Ian.

Posted by: kate at September 28, 2009 8:29 AM

Kelly in NC - maybe this is the new thing in NC..?

I was at Target in late August and found myself in a tornado of kids and parents doing back-to-school shopping. All of the local schools had provided copies of teacher supply lists that were available in the school supply section. There wasn't a single one that didn't include a ream of paper, dry erase markers, kleenex, a roll of scotch tape, and a box of staples. Those things in addition to the regular stuff that the students themselves needed, like notebooks and pencils. I was shocked to see that the kids (and their parents) were expected to stock the classrooms, but I guess without doing that, there's no money to get those things elsewhere.

Sad.

Posted by: jje at September 28, 2009 11:36 AM

I love the idea of a longer school year. Summers are way too long now that I'm a mom. :-) Don't know about the rest of you, but around here, parents pay fortunes to put kids in multiple camps during the summer. I did three camps along with playdates, park outings, special day trips, spraygrounds, and random fun stuff around the house, but still...summer seemed to stretch on forever. I'm all for the village helping me stay sane!

I'm also on board with the idea of no homework other than reading. I think when the school bell rings, kids should be outside playing and being kids. I spent way too much of my childhood stressing out over incredible amounts homework and I don't want that for my boys. We're starting to look at schools for next year and one of the questions I'm going to ask is about the homework philosophy of the school.

And my boys were apparently farmers in previous lives. We're up and at 'em by 6 or 6:30, sometimes earlier, so I'm not terribly keen on a later start. And I say this as a person who would LOVE to sleep in every single day of my life. It's just not gonna happen until the birdies leave the nest.

On a totally random note, I just finished reading Ian's pal Quinn Cumming's Notes from the Underwire and I highly recommend it. Charming and witty, with parts that were definitely laugh out loud funny.

Posted by: Schultz at September 28, 2009 11:52 AM

I like your ideas a lot Ian, but it will be difficult to change any system that still teaches us that Columbus discovered the Americas.

Kelly- we too have to supplement and subsidize supplies in the classroom. It's not biggie- we are happy to help out but it makes you wonder what and where else they are skimping.

John in NC

Posted by: ChrisM at September 28, 2009 12:41 PM

I totally agree. School schedules are not set for the benefit of students, they are set for the adults: parents, teachers/coaches, and the administrators managing big expenses like bus transportation...

By the time I got to high school (where I could barely stay awake I was so bored and sleep-deprived) it was so obvious that I was being warehoused. Naturally the grading bias in such a system means that dutiful-but-not-very-bright get high grades for always completing all that busy work.

Our H.S. valedictorian became a dancer in Vegas. Actually, that's pretty cool.

Posted by: janet at September 28, 2009 4:40 PM

I advocate "flexi- learning"..........."flexi- school" with an honest disposition to teaching and nuturing across, within and around the bounderies of age and ability.let it be said

Posted by: Neva at September 28, 2009 5:14 PM

Okay, you know how I love you Ian, but I am right there with LFMD, Anne and Jason. I'm sure your suggestions would work just fine for you but your situation is highly unusual.

I am middle to upper class and I struggle with what to do with my kids when I'm not working. I cannot imagine having more of that time. When they are in school at least I know they are safe, somewhat stimulated and learning something (at least some of the time).

I do believe in free play and lots of exercise. I do wish there was more of that than there is in school these days, but I don't necessarily think they need to be home more.
Being home more for most means more time to watch crappy TV (or even porn), more time to get into trouble, drugs, alcohol, etc. More time to get involved with gangs.
Your suggestion would work for a very small minority of people with a stay at home parent or a very involved nanny (and even they would have to be high quality, invested individuals - not Jerry Springer watchers).

I would prefer the exact opposite of what you suggest with actually more structured opportunities. I'd like for everyone to have the great after school and summer learning opportunities here in Chapel Hill that I have found for my kid that are enriching and interesting. They are damn expensive, inconvenient and inaccessible to most people though and THAT's what should change (IMO).

Posted by: Neva at September 28, 2009 5:16 PM

Correction - I meant that I struggle with what to do with my kids when I'm working and they are not in school.
(although what I wrote also is true. If I have long periods at home with them I struggle too. I would not make a great home school teacher!).

Posted by: Neva at September 28, 2009 5:19 PM

Also, you forget Ian - the great majority of us can't be flexible about our work hours. My kid starting school at 9:30 would be a major pain in the ass for anyone. I know this b/c it already happens once a month in Chapel Hill.

Posted by: Neva at September 28, 2009 5:23 PM

Also - if our district had a year round option, I'd be the first in line. I think there is something to be said for having frequent breaks and getting rid of the long summer. The biggest complaint I hear from my 8 year old is the long period of "review" that happens when they return to school in the fall.

I really don't mind the idea of a longer school day either if it is done right. My daughter goes from school to a arts based after school program that she LOVES (she begged to do it 5 days/week this year). It gives her structured arts and crafts time as well as free play time and homework time (with assistance). It definitely beats the roaming around the neighborhood stuff she did at home and the fighting over homework we had late into the night.
Wait and see Ian. Just wait and see.

Posted by: Paul G at September 28, 2009 5:40 PM

Love your points about Summer vacation. It really is a national treasure.

Posted by: Neva at September 28, 2009 6:31 PM

Actually, after going back to read it again, I totally agree with your Mom Ian. I think she's got it.

Posted by: Lfmd at September 28, 2009 7:16 PM

I agree with everything Neva said. Parents who are independently wealthy can entertain the kind of flexible summer you mention. For the majority of Americans, free summers mean more opportunities for trouble and delinquency, especially if the working parents can't be at home or afford such summer enrichment opportunities.

Posted by: sam at September 28, 2009 7:32 PM

Fascinating discussion. I grew up in a town of 9000 people in the coastal plains of N.C. and went to public schools k-12, half black half white. Today I live about 10 miles outside of Chapel Hill which is gentrified rural. When I'm driving to work at 7:30am I see all kinds of kids standing on the side of the road waiting for the school bus and a parent is always standing there with them. When did this start happening? When I was a kid in the 70s and early 80s you'd get laughed out of school if a parent stood with you while you were waiting for the bus. No, you wouldn't get laughed at, you'd be eating grass once the bus made it to school. It was the most uncool thing you could have done when you were 10 years old. Are parents scared somebody will kidnap their kids nowadays? Is that fear valid?

My wife of 14 years and I have no kids, so all I can really do is listen to the discussion, but we have 16 nieces and nephews and we're close to them all, plus their parents. One observation we have is that people are expecting schools to parent their kids more than when we were kids. Why is that? A classroom with 30 kids and one poorly paid teacher is the new family.

Something is wrong with that. But the complications seem impossible to unravel.

Posted by: Rebecca at September 28, 2009 9:22 PM

Can I post?

Posted by: Ian at September 29, 2009 12:19 AM

Big Scott, good catch on the Oklahoma poll - I didn't realize those morons at Strategic Vision had done it.

http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/search/label/strategic%20vision

Posted by: Jody at September 29, 2009 5:57 AM

Sam: You have to parent more. When you hear about "walkable neighborhoods" - they can't actually happen because no institution (karate, school, camp, other parent, etc.) would let your child LEAVE unattended. Schools are not expected to parent more, they have to parent more- there are a lot of fucked up families out there.

When parents see an honor student beaten to death by other young thugs in Chicago, they wait at the bus stop with their kid.

Others: Buying general use school supplies is common in NC. Not sure if it is policy, but definitely happens through middle school.

Blog subject: I thought the quiz was bogus. If you give a teenager the option to list Michael Jackson as the author of the constitution, they will take it. I didn't think modern teens had much of a sense of humor so I hope they answered MJ in the most snide manner possible.
There's nothing wrong with Obama's proposal. Ian's mom has it right on the homework- this issue has been by far the most contentious in raising my kid. Standoffs, hostility, grounding, hundreds of wasted hours, cajoling, rewarding, punishing, have all happened over homework. Finally, in eighth grade, they got a 'study hall'. All of the work gets done. And it does.

Posted by: Anne at September 29, 2009 6:29 AM

Came back to read more comments. Great thread.

I'm with Ian's Mom and Neva. DITCH THE RIDICULOUS HOMEWORK. Exceptions: Reading, of course. And in high school, research projects (but not those dumb backboard displays) -- real research techniques, exciting topics, with lots of in-class checkpoints and feedback between assignment and completion.

All of us, I'm afraid, know what it's like to do our children's homework with them, if not for them, much of the time. Sorry, teachers: Time to pull back on that stuff. I love the idea of a longer day broken up more with physical activity, art/creative activities (especially music, and NOT learning to play "Lightly Row" on the violin as I did ad nauseam!), maybe Web publishing projects (all students should maybe be maintaining topical blogs with access limited to an in-school network), etc.

I'm a big sports fan, including football, but I see the damage it can do when schedules revolve around leaving "enough time in the afternoon" for epic practice sessions. Starting H.S. at 9 am would make sense to me, with the cafeteria open early for those whose parents must leave the house early in the morning.

Posted by: jje at September 29, 2009 8:42 AM

I live in an urban walkable neighborhood with both the elementary and middle school (not to mention Charlotte's largest and best park) within reasonable walking distance . My boys won't be walking to school alone. I'll hang back a little bit if they have to look cool and they're welcome to act like they don't know me, but we've got way too much violent crime even in our affluent part of Charlotte to take the risk. Times have changed since I was a latchkey kid of the 70s and allowed to roam the neighborhood at will.

I do think the fear is valid.


Posted by: dob at September 30, 2009 8:41 AM

Y'all really don't get it? The systemic change that's occurred between the 1970's of most of our childhoods and today is the fact that the vast majority of households require two working adults to make ends meet. That's why schools are having to take on more parenting duties, and why summer day camps are becoming essential for middle class Americans.

I say it's time to renegotiate the social contract.

Posted by: Claudia at September 30, 2009 9:51 AM

I agree 100%.

Posted by: Ruthy at October 2, 2009 6:14 PM

Mom is a genius! I love her ideas.

Post a comment





(We won't show it.)




Remember personal info?