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Summer vacation is holding back American education

While it has perhaps been overshadowed by the debates concerning the economy and healthcare, President Barack Obama’s position on education plans to bring some changes to the table for our country’s school system. The Obama administration supports an initiative to expand the amount of time kids in America spend in school.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said “Our school calendar is based upon the agrarian economy and not too many of our kids are working in the fields today … Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here. I just want to level the playing field.”

To fit in more time for kids in the classroom, it is proposed that several steps be taken, including adding more hours to the school day, adding more days to the school calendar and cutting into summer vacation, amongst other things.

Whether or not you agree with this administration’s other decisions, this one, while perhaps somewhat unconventional (and potentially unpopular with kids), is a very good one.

In 2008, a documentary by the name of “2 Million Minutes” came out. The film basically demonstrated the differences in the high school experiences (in four years of high school, a student will have about 2 million minutes total between his freshman and senior year) between two American students, two Chinese students and two Indian students. In the movie, director Bob Compton basically shows how, in terms of subjects like math, science and technology, the U.S. is getting the living crap kicked out of them by countries such as (but not limited to) India and China.

Throughout the film, we see that students in high school in China and India have a much more rigorous academic schedule. While they attend nine hour school days and weekend class sessions, as well as focus heavily upon the fields of math and science, their American counterparts spend a comparatively moderate amount of time studying while also focusing on many other extracurricular and social activities.

The film was meant to call attention to the fact that the U.S. is losing its grip on its globally competitive edge by the second, mostly due to the fact that, on the whole, Chinese and Indian students are trouncing American students in the subjects of math, science and technology.

It did cause some stir in education policy circles, and while some reactions were mixed, many experts began to reassert the fact that the future looks bleak for the U.S. unless they can somehow catch up with other countries’ educational output. Shirley Jackson, Ph.D., president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, gave a series of speeches called “The Quiet Crisis,” attempting to call further attention to the growing problem.

“The engine of our national economy …  is powered by the technological and scientific discoveries and innovations made by scientists and engineers,” said Jackson. “As it happens, the U.S. scientific and engineering workforce is aging. The number reaching retirement is likely to triple in the next decade.”

Because of this large demographic shift, the U.S. will soon have to fill millions of shoes in scientific and mathematical departments just to attempt to keep up in an ever-increasing globally competitive economy. But Jackson notes that there are less and less students to fill those shoes as of late.

“Undergraduate student enrollments in engineering and the physical sciences are static or declining, and have been for a number of years. Computer science degrees decreased steadily between 1985 and 1995,” Jackson said.

The concept is as simple as it is condemning: The U.S. needs to produce more scientists, and it is simply not doing that. But that is where the Obama administration’s approach to education comes in. There is a strong case to be made that the policy of adding more time on to the American student’s school year can have a noticeable positive effect on said students.

In an Associated Press article concerning the possible impact of adding extra school time for American students, several points of research point to promise in the new policy. One part looked at other countries in which there are longer school days than those in the U.S.

“Researcher Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution looked at math scores in countries that added math instruction time. Scores rose significantly,” the article said.

The article also noted several examples of added time being beneficial in the U.S. as well. Evidence points to the fact that charter schools, which are generally known for having longer school days, weeks and years, almost always outperform the school district averages on state tests.

In addition, the article also pointed out the advantages of shortening the summer break, or even having a year-round schedule, where summer break is shortened and other breaks are lengthened. Essentially, they point out that an extended summer break is actually detrimental to many students’ continual learning process.

“Summer is a crucial time for kids, especially poorer kids, because poverty is linked to problems that interfere with learning, such as hunger and less involvement by their parents. That makes poor children almost totally dependent on their learning experience at school,” said Karl Alexander, a sociology professor at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, home of the National Center for Summer Learning, said the article.

As someone who doesn’t necessarily agree with all of the Obama administration’s decisions, I truly think this is an incredibly necessary initiative. At a time when the economy is in a shaky state at best, America needs to be able to remain sharp on the global competitive scale.

This simply is not happening at the current rate, in terms of how our education system is running compared to others around the world. To invest in the future of our country’s economic and social growth, we must first invest in an overhaul of the current basic education system.

Dave Coffey is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at dscoffey@student.umass.edu.

Comments
One Response to “Summer vacation is holding back American education”
  1. Ben Rudnick says:

    Dave,

    I do not disagree with your main point that extending the school year, or at least the school day, is a good idea. However, I think that you are really talking about two different issues here. First, there is the question of how well, or badly, American students compete with those from other countries, in particular by the reckoning of standardized tests. The other issue you describe is the fact that there will not only not be enough science, math, and technology students graduation to keep pace with the growing requirements of our economy, but there may not even be enough to replace the ageing group of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers that will be retiring over the next however-many years.

    These two problems are not entirely separable, but extending the school year, or day, will not solve the second issue, and I fear that trying to solve the first one may prevent us from solving the more vital problem of replacing the retiring scientists. The truth is that the worst way to encourage more kids to go into technical fields, such as the sciences and engineering, may be to force them all to spend more time in instruction in those areas. Perhaps there is a better way to entice more kids into those careers, maybe by identifying those with aptitude early on and then providing them with specialized curricula designed to motivate them and maintain their interest. In fact, instead of spending money on having kids spend more time in school, following generic curricula that treat all kids in a similarly mind-numbing fashion, perhaps we should spend that money on programs focused more on finding out what subjects students prefer and encouraging them to develop in those areas. Let’s face it, having the government run all the schools leads to all the schools beign run in a similar fashion, as if a one-size-fits-all system is the best way of educating America’s kids. If only there were some way to introduce some entrepreneurship in place of the current stagnation…

    In addition, while you make some good points in your piece, you fail to note that the biggest roadblock to extending the school day or year will not be parents, who will certainly support having their children in school more, rather than at a daycare or summer camp they have to pay through the nose for. Nor will it be politicians, be they democrat or republican, who will like the idea of the additional power that the extra money for the longer days/years will place in their hands. No, the greatest roadblock is likely to be the teacher’s unions. We’ll see how the unions react this time, because they may decide the time is right, but don’t be surprised if you start to see primary and high school teachers grumbling about the notion.

    Anyway, I was glad to see a column about the issue; I just wish you’d been able to go into more detail about the ins-and-outs of the two different problems you highlighted.

    Ben R.
    Fellow Collegian Columnist

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