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Published in the Los Angeles Times, Fall 2000
Real Reform vs. 30 More Days.
By Mark Storer
The chains that bind education are political ones. They are forged of the same steel that shapes agendas on the left and the right and history seems to be recording a current trend toward the extremes. That is why it is an apparent anomaly when a moderate gets elected for anything and in many ways Gray Davis is a moderate. Still, his recent attempt at “educational reform” by extending the middle school year is not a moderate solution. In fact, simply tacking on days during the hot summer in overcrowded and sometimes badly ventilated classrooms is not a viable solution at all and is certainly not real education reform.
The Governor suggests that by extending the middle school year, students will learn more and test scores will rise thereby ameliorating the mediocre performance of middle school students in those same tests last year. There is no statistical data, however, showing that extending the school year raises test scores. In fact, between 1996 and 2000, the Oxnard Union High School District extended their school year and the experiment was canceled as of 2000/20001 because only slight improvements in test scores occurred.
An extension in the school year will impact teachers, but its impact on students and parents is far greater. Families plan their lives around the school calendar and there is a great deal of truth to the fact that extending a school year simply burns out the teachers, staff, students and families. School is not like any other form of work. Its intensity and atmosphere of extraordinary numbers of people in one place and at one time, all with different needs, make school a real pressure cooker and students can literally shut down. Extending the year would essentially be like extending a symphony’s performance because the horn players are not performing well. More individual practice is needed in the horn section and so those people must be given the time to improve. Without it, the symphony is just bad for a longer period of time.
More time does need to be spent on academic pursuits, but not just by adding another month. Block scheduling, which is used in many areas in Ventura County as well as the country and has been successful, is a better place to start. Instead of spending 45 to 55 minutes each day in every class, classes are broken down into one and a half or two hour blocks and done two or three days a week. This schedule allows students time to digest material and retain more information. Class size is less of a problem because the teacher has time to deal with individuals and does not have to race with the bell schedule. Adding on a number of days is far more costly to taxpayers as well but block scheduling does not incur major additional costs.
The school curriculum would also benefit from an overhaul in containing the breadth of what is taught and extending the depth. Research has shown that one of the areas where America’s schools are lacking is in their ability to teach the complexity of individual subjects. Core classes become a timeline and the goal is less about complete understanding and more about covering the subject. State frameworks are designed to get through a certain number of materials in a certain amount of time. If a typical high school English student has to read The Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby in the same semester as well as myriad other tasks including three or four state sponsored tests, he or she may simply not have enough time to digest the importance of either novel, but may only have a cursory understanding of both. Whereas if the student is given time to pursue one novel in more depth, he or she may gain real insight, critical and independent viewpoints and maybe even a love for the literature.
Parents need to play a more active role as well, though politicians are loathe to broach this subject. Any teacher can cite examples of a child’s parents who are motivated and involved and how their child does well in school. There are always exceptions, of course, but by and large parental motivation, involvement and support are indicators of success in student work.
The Governor and even the President have batted about words like accountability and responsibility like so much political baggage. The meaning of the words is lost on educators who find themselves being blamed for their students’ poor returns on tests. Educators are serious about responsibility and about the need for real reform and authentic accountability. But the answer does not lie in political quick fixes and scapegoats. Communities must respond to the needs of their schools and their students in measured, honest and thoughtful ways. The battle cry by the Governor of 30 more days is not an honest appraisal of the needs of schools and frankly, it sounds too much like another political battle cry: “Four more years”.