Contrary to the opinions of Roger Waters and David Gilmour, we do, in fact, need education. In fact, according to President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, we need more education. This weekend, the two of them floated the ever-unpopular ideas of expanding the school day and eliminating or shortening summer break.
Now, since I am no longer in school, I can admit it: They’re right. There is no reason for the school schedule to remain as it is. The current academic schedule is based on the socio-economic conditions that were prevalent when public schools were being established, over 100 years ago. But things have changed; as Duncan put it, “Not too many of our kids are working the fields today.”
Ignoring Duncan’s blatant disrespect for the <1% of the country that still farms, he’s right that the calendar should be changed. But simply expanding the length of the school day or school year is not all that should be changed.
Plenty of facts about American secondary schools have changed in the last half-century—from what type of children predominantly attends them to what jobs graduates are likely to obtain. It makes sense, then, for schools to change with these facts.
I, for one, think that this opportunity should present itself as a chance to restructure high school. High school should not just replace a September—May schedule with an August—June one. This would only irritate students and wear out teachers.
Instead, we should increase the amount of time students are in school, but decrease the amount of time they spend in any one class. Currently, high school is more or less the same throughout the country: For four years, every student takes between six and eight classes a year, supplemented by the occasional half-year course. In most cases, though, taking a class from September to May is either too much or too little. Consider this: The subjects of U.S. History and European History are almost always given the same amount of class time, despite the fact that the latter is over ten times as long as the former. Now, granted, American history is more relevant to American students, but this is clearly an example of the subject being contorted to fit a schedule, as opposed to the other way around.
What should replace a full academic year is a series of shorter, more intense classes. Instead of taking the same eight classes for nine months, you would take three classes for two months at a time, all year long. I can see three benefits of this:
1) It would allow students to focus more. Instead of their attentions being split in half a dozen directions, they would be able to actually delve into the subjects they were studying at the time they were being studied.
2) It reduces monotony. This is important. The main objection to expanding the school day/year, as far as I can see, is that the current day/year is anathema to the short attention spans of students as it is. Additionally, teachers are often mentally and emotionally spent by the time the school year ends. In this more dynamic system, though, students and teachers would get a fresh start every ten weeks or so.
It’s true, of course, that longer school days and longer class periods are NOT conducive to short attention spans, but this can be alleviated by filling the expanded school day with less traditional “class time” and more unconventional learning experiences. In other words, instead of turning one 40-minute class period into a two-hour period, we can make it one 40-minute period, followed by some kind of research or independent study period, followed by another 40-minute period. Josh has already identified the shortcomings of the “solo lecture,” so it makes little sense to expand the school day by simply devoting more time to them. The only reason high school classes all follow the same structure is because schools try to cram as many subjects into the given time. By limiting the number of courses taught at one time, though, we can expand the way those subjects are taught.
3) It more closely mirrors the college semester or trimester system. Today, high school is, for many, just a preparation for college; a high school diploma hasn’t been sufficient for most jobs in about 50 years. If most high school students are planning on going to college anyway, it makes sense for secondary school to follow a similar structure. The structural parallels of college and high school may seem incidental, but secondary schools that condition students for to learn by passively sitting in eight classrooms a day inhibits the initiative of students to actively engage in a specific subject.
The result is that the transition from high school to college is, for many students, simply a change in the amount of time spent in class, instead of an actual type of learning. Josh has already discussed the value of the tutorial system, in which active, one-on-one engagement is encouraged and even necessary. This kind of engagement is desirable even without tutorials, but high school students are currently unprepared for that type of dynamic, given the structural differences between high school and most colleges.
Now, I concede that this kind of structural change is not likely to happen for many reasons, some of which are understandable (it would require current teachers to unlearn current curricula and learn an entirely new format), some of which are ridiculous (if people got upset when Obama just spoke to public school students, how will they react if he tries to change them?) and some of which are reprehensible (teachers unions would object to increased hours). But education is important, so we should probably try to do it right.