Beaton column: Make school year-round
The Aspen Beat
American students are lousy compared with students in many other industrialized countries. In a 2013 survey of 64 industrialized countries, American students ranked 30th in math, 23rd in science and 20th in reading.
Comically and sadly, however, American students themselves consistently rate themselves much higher than their foreign counterparts. The one subject where they excel is in self-esteem.
Some argue that the reason for our dismal performance is that we don’t pay teachers enough. But we do in fact pay teachers fairly well in comparison to those countries that are outperforming us. Moreover, the people making that argument also tend to argue that teachers are doing a great job.
So which is it? Are teachers already doing a great job? Or are they not doing a great job, but they would if only we paid them more?
I think it’s the former — teachers are already doing a great job. Paying them more would not make them do an even greater job. They didn’t get into it for the money.
And when you’re already doing a great job, it’s pretty tough to up your game just because someone says they’ll pay you more. Teachers who are performing at an “A” level cannot be expected to go higher than the “A+” level. That incremental difference is not going to enable us to beat the Japanese and Swedes, not to mention the Latvians, Poles and Slovenians whose students are better than ours.
Others argue that the reason for our mediocre grades is that we don’t spend enough on schools. But most of the cost of schools is in teacher salaries, and, as mentioned, we pay pretty well by international standards. As for the total expenditures for schools, we spend more than most of the countries that beat us.
There’s a serious flaw in our system, and it’s not that we have bad teachers or that we don’t spend enough money. That flaw works against teachers, against students and against America’s position in the global economy.
That flaw is that teachers in America work only part-time. I won’t get mired in a debate about whether they work less or more than doctors, lawyers or software engineers on evenings, weekends and holidays. And, speaking of holidays, I won’t count against them the couple weeks they get off for Christmas, the week for spring break and the numerous three- and four-day weekends.
Let’s instead concentrate on one particular piece of the puzzle: summers.
The reason teachers get summers off, of course, is that students do. The reason students get summers off is that a century or two ago the students were needed as labor on the family farms.
Don’t be startled, but students no longer work on the family farms. (In fact, they often don’t work anywhere at all, but that’s a subject for another column.)
The reason kids don’t work on the family farm is because there isn’t one. Farms aren’t operated by families anymore. Families live in suburbs, and farms are run by technology-driven corporations. That may be a bad thing (or may be a good thing because it has produced an unprecedented quantity and variety of food at low prices) but, regardless, it is a fact and it’s not going to change.
So why not make school year-round, as many other countries have? That doesn’t necessarily mean that kids would go to school 52 weeks a year. It just means that the schools would stop shutting down for the summer. Kids could still be driven around to soccer practices, swimming lessons and band camp, but overall there would be more school and less time off. Colleges have been moving this direction for years.
A side benefit is the infrastructure efficiency. School buildings have to be maintained 12 months a year, but get used only about nine. How long would a business avoid bankruptcy if it spent millions on a factory that it shuddered four months a year?
If we expect to compete in a global economy, we’d better start competing in the global educational system. That means that schools, teachers and students need to make education a full-time proposition.
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