I recently realized that Bill Gates is on Twitter.  For some reason, I find it unbelievable that he would be on Twitter; maybe it’s his personal assistant or something.  I guess I just have him on too high a pedestal.  Does one of the world’s wealthiest people really have time for Twitter?

Anyway, he posted a link to this article: The Case for Saturday School.

Firstly, I’ll say I hate the modern state of public education.  But I’m a bit skeptical that just increasing or decreasing the amount of hours or days a kid goes would do much.  I think doing either could have some very bad consequences.  I’d rather changes be made in the grading systems and the curriculum.

These are some reactions I had while reading the article:

(And please excuse any typos, because I’m going to go to bed after writing this rather than reread my writing.)

The article states:

In the face of budget shortfalls, school districts in many parts of the United States today are moving toward four-day weeks. This is despite evidence that longer school weeks and years can improve academic performance.

OK, but what exactly is “academic performance”?  Isn’t that measured by the tests the academics are giving?  If so, isn’t it obvious that such performance would benefit from increased instruction?  I mean, that’s what the instruction is for.

To me, “academic performance” seems kind of meaningless in and of itself.  We have to define how it relates to the rest of the working world.  After all, isn’t that the entire point of school?  To prepare students for the world of not going to school?  When you get out of school, when and where does “academic performance” apply?  There aren’t many objectively defined math tests in the real world.  While it may be important that you understand certain mathematical concepts for certain jobs, spending more time studying for and doing better on a math test isn’t necessarily going to increase your long term mathematical aptitude.

So I’m suspicious of “improved academic performance” being an automatically good thing.  The term is simply too vague.

Later on, the article states:

“Summer learning loss” is no joke. When they return to school in late August or early September, many children, especially the least advantaged among them, have shed a sizable portion of what they had learned by May—a full month’s worth, by most estimates, adding up to 1.3 school years by the end of high school.

No, it isn’t a joke.  And if you think forgetting stuff over the summer is bad, what about when school is over?! What about “life learning loss”?  And herein lies one of the biggest issues I have with our modern education system; they teach too many things that students just don’t use in everyday life.  There are two solutions to this “summer learning loss” problem, besides what the article is suggesting: 1) stop teaching useless stuff and 2) let students participate more in society so they have a chance to use their knowledge.  (And maybe 3) let students have more control over what they want to learn in school.)  Now, 1 is pretty simple, you just teach less.  2 would require some work to figure out.

But this is assuming that the point of school is to prepare students for the non-school world, for the world in which they’ll have to do some kind of work in exchange for money to exchange for food.  The purpose is not to try to make kids as smart as possible for as long as possible.  Or is it?  Maybe it actually is?  And if so, what is the point of that?

The article says:

The typical young American, upon turning 18, will have spent just 9% of his or her hours on this planet under the school roof (and that assumes full-day kindergarten and perfect attendance) versus 91% spent elsewhere. As for the rest of that time, the Kaiser Family Foundation recently reported that American youngsters now devote an astounding 7.5 hours per day to “using entertainment media” (including TV, Internet, cellphones and videogames). That translates to about 53 hours a week—versus 30 hours in school.

Wow.  Perhaps I was far from typical, then.  I never spent 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media.  The most I could manage was probably 2 or 3.  Then again, I’m not sure how well I can recall my elementary school days.  If I wasn’t doing homework, I was probably playing around outside.  That was probably just as noneducational as watching TV, though.  By the time I was in high school, most extra time I had was spent sleeping.  Homework took up A LOT of time; it was extremely depressing.  I mean, during the high school years, life revolved around high school.  It was horrible.

Anyway, that’s not really important, because, again, why should 91% of time spent elsewhere matter?  It’ll just end up increasing to 100% eventually.  Shouldn’t we be focusing on how to make that time spent elsewhere matter more instead of just trying to decrease it?  Shouldn’t we be focusing on how to make that time spent in school matter more, for that matter?  Since when is just more hours spent in school automatically good?  Oh, because of this “academic performance” thing?

In 1994, for example, economist Robert Margo reported that historical differences in school-year length for black and white youngsters attending segregated schools accounted for much of the gap in their adult earnings.

I’d be interested in that study; how does one conclude such a cause-and-effect?  What about the effect of the children’s home lives?  I would think that would matter just as much, if not more.

Examining the days forfeited to snow and other “unscheduled closings” in Maryland in 2002-2003, [University of Maryland analyst Dave Marcotte] concluded that two-thirds of the elementary schools that failed to make “adequate yearly progress” (the federal benchmark under “No Child Left Behind”) in math that year would have done so “if they had been open during all scheduled school days.”

Firstly, how in the world do you analyze what “would have” happened?  Secondly, doesn’t that sound like more of a failure of a curriculum being designed to prepare for a benchmark assessment test?

Where things start to get complicated is that time spent in school does not equal time fruitfully applied to learning basic skills and core content—a mismatch that looms larger in the U.S. than in most other places.

Yeah, that’s what I said!

Our deeper problem is the enormous amount of time that typical American schools spend on gym, recess, lunch, assembly, changing classes, homeroom, lining up to go to the art room, looking at movies, writing down homework assignments, quieting the classroom, celebrating this or that holiday, and other pursuits. It’s not all wasted time but neither are these minutes spent in ways that boost test scores…

UGH!  How many times do I have to tell you?  The education system is not about boosting test scores! And they don’t represent so simply what people want them to represent, which is how well a student knows material.  It measures other things: how well the student knows the material at the time, how well the student knows that specific material, how good the student is at taking tests, how good the student is at cramming the night before, etc… good test scores are not necessarily good.  Stop blindly being guided by them.

Over the long run, technology holds much potential to boost student learning time in flexible ways and at modest cost. We can stipulate that kids are addicted to it; that “virtual” instruction can happen at very nearly any time or place; and that well-designed distance-learning programs (and suitable hardware) enable greater individualization of learning, with each child moving at his/her own pace, diving deeper when warranted, and going back over things they didn’t quite understand the first time.

Eh… I’m not sure “kids are addicted to it.”  They might like to play computer games, but they can certainly tell the difference between a game and boring old instruction just printed on the screen instead of paper.  I think it can have just as many problems, if not more, than traditional classroom education.  The key is it being “well-designed.”

Disadvantaged youngsters really need—for their own good—the benefits of longer days, summer classes and Saturday mornings in school. But nearly every young American needs to learn more than most are learning today, both for the sake of their own prospects and on behalf of the nation’s competitiveness in a shrinking, dog-eat-dog world.

Maybe disadvantaged youngsters just need to be out of there disadvantaged homes with their not-so-intelligent disadvantaged parents.  If a school is a richer learning environment, even if time isn’t necessarily spent on strict formal lessons, they will be better off for just being around the educationally stimulating environment.  In which case, I’d actually agree that more time in school would be good.  *gasp*  But not necessarily for advantaged children with smart parents, who can create a better learning environment in their own homes.

Whew, wasn’t that fun.

Of course, I think this article is in support of this KIPP program, which Bill Gates seems fond of, either because he actually believes in it or because he’s got some kind of stake in it (or both).


2 Comments

LanthonyS · March 21, 2010 at 8:35 AM

I’m in a concurrent Education/French program, and am also taking Philosophy of Education, and the things you learn are fascinating. I like reading your dissatisfaction with stuff like this, which I too consider misinformed, or nonsensical…

A couple of very interesting writers on this subject are Rancière and Kieran Egan. The first has some ideas on the function of the schoolteacher, and how irrelevant the teacher is to most learning, functioning much more effectively as an administrator of learning that the students otherwise run for themselves. Egan has a brilliant scheme of how the child mind develops which allows you to easily discern what they need to learn, because each item contributes not only to their “knowledge store” but to a more permanent and much more useful “understanding store”, which under our current system is picked up incidentally and by luck. John Dewey of course has many great and and unheard things to say, but modern schools seem to think they’ve got from him what they need.

I’m also reminded of C.S. Lewis saying in Surprised by Joy (I paraphrase from memory here), “One great failure of our schools is that they try to teach a child everything; we should teach a child a very few subjects, because a young man doesn’t have time to get deeply into anything before he’s 20, and now knows only one thing about everything rather than everything about only one thing.”

S P Hannifin · March 23, 2010 at 3:49 AM

Thanks for the comment!

Philosophy of Education sounds very interesting. I would’ve loved to study in that area more academically, but I doubt I would’ve been able to conform enough to get a job in the area. So how do I change the education system? By blogging about it! OK, so I’m not really doing much…

The writers you mention sound very interesting. I’d love to read their work if I had time and access, but alas… though I’m sure I could find some John Dewey. (I used to think he was behind the famous decimal system.)

My sister studied to become a teacher and was required to read some Dewey. I’m not sure what points exactly they were trying learn from him, but he seems interesting.

Kind of funny that you have to be taught to be a teacher. I wonder if you have to be taught to teach teachers how to teach? Overall, I think it’s a bit like religion and politics, in that there are so many beliefs out there and people believe their beliefs very strongly. Which isn’t necessarily bad, but it makes it a very tough topic.

Anyway, great quote by C. S. Lewis (who always seems to have great quotes), even if paraphrased. I think I remember reading that quote somewhere. It is exactly right, and I just don’t understand why so many people go through high school hating it and then thinking in retrospect that it was all good after all. *sigh*

But I think it is human nature to be curious and to want to know things, and if schools could work with that instead of trying to force-feed some other pre-planned agenda with assessment tests everywhere, the child would learn much more.

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