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Bill Ferriter, who’s blog I time and again cite as a “must-read” for people in education, has written yet another post that has gotten me thinking.

He writes about Education Secretary Duncan’s recent call for students to spend more time in school. He quotes both from a post from David Warlick attacking the idea in a post titled Let’s just put them all in jail 24/7 and one from Nancy Flanagan that is supportive of it.

Bill then asks a question (and answers it):

Does anyone REALLY believe that extra time will lead to anything BUT additional mind-numbing madness for our kids?

I don’t…

I have a different answer.

I think having students in school longer would help many of our students.  For many students,  especially in low-income communities like where our school is located, schools are a hugely stabilizing influence in their lives and, despite their verbal protestations to the contrary, they like it.  That’s one reason why over half of the 2,000 students enrolled stay for an extra one hour class each school day, and why so many of our students want to attend summer school (even though state budget cuts last year and this year have closed that option off for many).

There have also been plenty of studies that have documented the negative impact the “summer slump” has on students — again, particularly on students in low-income communities.

So if Secretary Duncan wants to provide money to schools to be open longer, that’s fine with me.

Listen, I know our schools have a lot of problems, and have a very long way to go. And I think there are a lot of valid constructive criticisms that can, and should, be made. However, in general, I think that many schools, along with a number of labor unions and religious congregations, are some of the few institutions that are doing a pretty decent job at helping people develop skills needed to actively participate effectively in public life.

Maybe I’m living in a bubble, and most schools really are in terrible shape, but it hasn’t been my experience.

Do I think that increasing the time students spend in school is the best thing that government can do to improve the education experience of our students?

Absolutely not.

Here are just three things that I think I think would be better (and I can certainly think of more, too):

Providing more resources to increase affordable housing, health care, and pathways to wealth creation for low-income families would certainly be a better way. Richard Rothstein has clearly identified how these kinds of changes are necessary to bridge the “achievement gap.”

Providing resources for, and pushing schools to,  engage parents more as partners and having, as the Industrial Areas Foundation phrases it, “two-way conversations instead of one-way communication.”  Schools can be important players in working with families on those housing, health care, and wealth creation issues.

Reducing the role of standardized test results as the ultimate evaluation tool for both teachers and students, and increasing the use and value of alternative forms of assessment, like student portfolios, would help focus schools on creating life-long learners instead of going for the short-term gain of test results.  One would hope that government and others have learned from the recent Wall Street debacle that increasing incentives for short-term pay-offs does not benefit our communities.

In organizing (as most readers know, I worked for the Industrial Areas Foundation as a community organizer for many years prior to becoming a teacher), we used to talk a lot about the fact that there’s the world “as it is” and the world “as we’d like it to be.”   It’s important to be pragmatic but, at the same time, recognize the tension between the two worlds — we don’t want to become hopeless sentimentalists, but neither do we want to become narrow-eyed cynics.

I’d like to have my three suggestions implemented right away.  However, that’s the world as I’d like it to be.

For now, though, if Secretary Duncan is going to find extra money somewhere to keep schools open longer, I’ll take it…

11 Responses to “Come On, Our Schools Aren’t That Bad….”

  1. [...] Come On, Our Schools Aren’t That Bad… is the title of my newest post in our group blog, “In Practice.” It’s written by several of us who teach in low-income communities. [...]

  2. Michael says:

    Larry,

    Something missed in your recommendations, in my opinion, is seriously restructuring the professional framework for teaching. There needs to be far more time built in for collaboration, planning, preparing and professional development. The current structure where direct contact with students in the classroom is viewed as the only legitimate function of a teacher is inherently counterproductive. I believe this must come first before we start extending time for students in school. An extension would just be increasing the unproductive treadmill that teachers are already on. I also think that above is more consistent with international comparisons where teachers work more hours than here but have a far smaller percentage of direct teaching time.

    Michael

  3. Larry wrote:
    Providing more resources to increase affordable housing, health care, and pathways to wealth creation for low-income families would certainly be a better way. Richard Rothstein has clearly identified how these kinds of changes are necessary to bridge the “achievement gap.”

    You hit the nail square on the head here, Larry!

    I read Rothstein’s Class and Schools years ago and it changed the way that I think about school improvement. If I had the ridiculous billions that Duncan has to spend, this would be the first place that I’d turn.

    And I’d run all of these opportunities through schools in each community. Health clinics, job training, after school care, summer extension for students—things that the kids in my suburban school take for granted—-that were running out of neighborhood schools could only help to make a community stronger.

    I wonder why—even with Rothstein’s clear and convincing evidence—our nation struggles to believe in these kinds of changes.

    Our lack of effort in these areas frustrates me to no end!

    Bill

  4. Michael,

    I definitely agree with you on the need to increase the time available for teacher professional development and collaboration — that’s on my list, too!

    I’d still take the money now to expand time in school for students, though, even before that happened…

    Larry

  5. Bill,

    I hear your frustration, buddy!

    (And now, for a self-interested commercial announcement)

    By the way, Linworth Publishing will be coming out with my book this summer — Building Parent Engagement In Schools — which is all about how schools can work with parents to make this stuff happen.

    Larry

  6. egsl says:

    Larry,
    I really like your suggestions and agree that we should take the money for more time in school if that is what is offered.
    I work at the elementary level and I really believe that the one thing that would help schools be better tomorrow would be smaller classes. With many districts eleminating CSR in grades K-3 it looks like we will be back to 30-34 students at all elementary grade levels. The students most harmed by the larger classes are the ELL population.

  7. Chris White says:

    Great point Michael! One of he problems is that the educational system is so big that it is hard to change. Teachers time without students has little or no value in the public eye. But maybe there is a compromise to be made. What if we had 4 days of school, 1 day for planning, and one day students are required to be in school to get help, do clubs, service learning etc. Or some other configuration with time built in to massively increase teacher planning/collaboration time. I’m sure there are people out there a lot smarter than me that could do something to solve the actual problems in education. It just doesn’t seem like Duncan is the guy.

  8. Cliff says:

    Great post. I agree with you. Extended day is not for everyone. Some students have great learning opportunities outside of school. Some do not – for those that don’t extended hrs/year is the only way to close the achievement gap. Of course, more of the same ineffective delivery will marginalize the benefit. We need to align delivery style with learning style. We need to consider incorporating skills into the content. We need more fluid and flexible paths to graduation.

  9. Cliff says:

    great post. i agree. extended day/year is beneficial for some – particularly inner city (a la KIPP) but not for all. not all kids have learning opportunities outside of school – for them, we need to keep them in school to close the achievement gap. Of course more of the same ineffective education delivery will marginalize the benefit. we need to change how content is delivered. we need to include 21st century skills into the curriculum.

  10. David says:

    After reading your post, I began thinking about my school and how productive it would be to have students here more. I think there is definitely a need to increase student time in school, but more importantly to reorganize the time we already alot for school. Restructuring the school calendar to six week terms with two weeks off between and only a month during the summer would cut down drastically on the amount of student regression through the long summer break. This year round model would also give teachers much more opportunity to collaborate and attend meaningful professional development throughout the school year when it could benefit their students the most. However, I am the high school principal at a rural school and understand fully that the old agrarian model is deeply engrained into our society.

    But the best point you made was the comments about standardized testing. Schools have adopted the live or die by the scores mentality when it comes to standardized testing. So much state funding, labels such as “school improvement”, etc… are tied to student performance on one test that schools and teachers are forced to teach to the test each year which means teachers lose so many opportunities to teach valuable material but don’t becuase its not tested.

  11. Cliff and David,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I’m all for re-looking at how the time is spent in school, though I’d take Duncan’s money for school-time expansion even before that could happen.

    Larry

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