If One Size Fits All Will Anyone’s Shoes Fit Properly?

“Education Plan Likely to Include Longer Days and Years”
Des Moines Register 11/6/11
This Register article was written in support of  lengthening the school day and school year and although it was largely opinion based it was on the front page rather than the editorial page.  This is  something that would have driven my high school journalism teacher to total distraction.

Some Selected quotes from that article.(italics and bold added by this writer)

“The Plan will probably offer strategies to increase instruction for struggling students….. “
“More than half the achievement gap between low and higher income children can be linked to unequal access to summer learning”
“….30 high poverty schools that expanded their school day or year were able to boost student arithmetic and reading scores….” (note here that nothing was said about science, language, and history)
“Last year the school posted increases in the number of fourth grade students who scored proficient or advanced…. “
“As the number of children in poverty grows, longer school days and school years are needed to close the achievement gap…. “

It’s the 66% that we particularly worry about” (lower 2/3)

Three Thoughts on Longer School Days or School Years.

1st thought
The Des Moines Register has once again, in a recurring theme, chosen to go out of our country with their comparisons to other schools the inferrence being that there are no schools “good’ enought for the Register in the United States. By going out of country and far away they are in  effect once again comparing apples to oranges to support their  desired negative conclusions. Finland (a long time Register favorite) Korea, Japan, Canada Germany, and Australia were cited in the article.
These comparisions are often not particularly valid for various reasons; let’s look at Finland for example. Finland has been the long time  educational darling of the Register and it does have a very strong and successful elementary school program but then requires students to choose at age 16 if they are going into an academic track or vocational track of around 3 years in length, they must select one or the other if they are to continue their schooling at all. Then at the end of three years ( comparable to our high school graduation) the students once again must choose a university track or polytechnic (applied science track) or do neither. It should be noted that there are nearly 50% more polytechnic track schools in Finland than there are university schools. Why is that and how does it effect their test scores?  In the United States we tend to wrongly insist that everyone can and should go to a university and then as part of that goal  subject all of the them to the same college prep course work requirements in high school( algebra II/calculus being just one example).  We then test them over that course of study  no matter what their natural proclivities are, this often results in lower test scores because unlike Finland we test students in areas totally out of their natural motivation, skills or desires. A student in the vocational track in Finland might be tested over auto repair which is what they have chosen as their area of study, enjoy and want to learn about, not like being tested over organic chemistry which, (in my experienced based opinion) only a few naturally masochistic individuals in the U.S. enjoy or do well at. So let’s be clear the U.S. is not Finland or Germany or Japan  and straight up comparisons with these countries are disingenuous at best. Can we learn from what they are doing, certainly. Can we copy them wholesale and be successful here, almost just as certainly not.

Smart kids are not mentioned in the article or the new ” Iowa reform” plan at all. It is all about raising the lower functioning, dysfunctional or high poverty students to an acceptable level of  mediocrity, nothing is mentioned about raising the average and  abve average kids to a  level of excellence. Not once did the article mention average and above kids except to hold them as a comparison to the targets of the new programming. The article claims we are falling behind and yet when you look at the countries that are leaping ahead educationally and  economically, China and India in particular, they are spending a significant portion of their resources on grooming and challenging their best and brightest to become better while in the U.S. at the current time we are spending a disproportionate amount on the other end of the spectrum in an attempt to make our weakest and least motivated become average

I believe that, in the U.S. we revel in Horatio Alger stories it is one of the foundational underpinnings of our national philosophy.  I believe however that generally speaking in education it is not our poorest students (true geniuses excepted) who become our brightest inventive and creative lights. Please Note! I am not arguing against helping struggling students succeed. But if we continue to focus all of our attention on the lower half of our student body I believe that we will get exactly what we pay for and if we continue to pay for  mediocrity for all, at the expense of world altering excellence for some, that is exactly what we will receive. In effect condemning ourselves to an Orwellian dystopian absolutely average, beige colored, future.

Not all students can and should become astronauts; it is time we understood that and  made that distinction.

Another seemingly unrelated article in the Register this morning, sharing page one was about  children and athletics and creeping professionalism. The general gist of the article was that creeping professionalism is visible in younger and younger ages our children who are athletically inclined.  The question is asked, ” are receiving or being subjected to,  too much, too early”. A position with which I tend to agree. The article also asks,” are we putting too much pressure on our young athletes?” These are reasonable questions to ask about children and athletics however on the academic side of this same argument, which of course is not front page news, it is also true that for many of our brightest students the problem is exactly the opposite from that of gifted athletes. Our smart students are often working under absolutely no pressure in our public schools particulary at the elementary and middle school levels and are in fact receiving an education that in many cases is truly coming to them too little and too late if they are to be allowed to reach their full academic potential.  I believe this is particularly true of high poverty and some minority students.

3rd thought
There was a note of hope in the article, it concerned intercession days. One school in Urbandale Iowa is offering 24 (a month and a half of 5 day weeks) extra days of learning called intercession days. Des Moines tried this a few years ago on a much smaller scale and soon dropped it. However would it not make sense that rather than extending the whole school year or school day for all students at an estimated cost of up to 15 million dollars a day state wide that we actually offer a meaningful summer program or lengthened school day for those want it or need it rather than subjecting all students to a longer day or year that they and their families do not want or need.

Time is not the issue for most average to high functioning students in our schools and it is a sharply honed double edged sword for many of our students Without meaningful accommodations for the average to above average additional time in school  may help some students but at the risk of  eventually causing others to lose interest and never reach their full potential.
A colleague of mine posted the following quote on Facebook.  It is from one of my personal inspirational thinkers and I think it is apropos to this issue.


About safrisri

I was a school teacher until retirement. I have taught at all educational levels from pre-school to college. My college degree is general science which I arrived at after 5 years and 5 different majors. A degree as it turns out, almost as valuable and in demand as one in Neo-Bulgarian Mythology. I have been around education for around 40 years and can remember when teaching was a pleasant, happy and creative job and our schools were the same. Now I'm the guy sitting on the porch with an opinion on everything.
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