More time in school will hinder the education of the entire person

by Mr. Sheehy

I try very hard not to pay attention to politics. To this particular area, I aspire to the example of Benjamin Franklin, whose behavior during floor debate in the Continental Congress is captured wonderfully by David McCullough in John Adams:

Franklin wanted independence . . . But [he] had no liking for floor debate. He was patient, imperturbable, and at times sound asleep in his chair. Never would he argue a point. Indeed, it was rare that he spoke at all or ventured an opinion except in private conversation. (92)

Take the health care debate as an example. My opinion is set, my senators’ votes are set, I am not going to be given a chance to vote directly, and getting upset about what I see in the news will only raise my blood pressure. Thus, I refuse to follow the details and I will not discuss it with you or almost anyone else.

Yet I do pay a passing bit of attention, and I recall hearing sometime near the beginning of the school year that President Obama had expressed an opinion in favor of longer school hours. With a quick search I found on ABC News a summary of his comments and those of his staff:

Obama and Duncan say kids in the United States need more school because kids in other nations have more school.

“Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here,” [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan told the AP. “I want to just level the playing field.”

The reason, then, appears to be that everybody else is doing it, though to be more specific, the reason given is that the people with higher test scores are doing it:

Researcher Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution looked at math scores in countries that added math instruction time. Scores rose significantly, especially in countries that added minutes to the day, rather than days to the year.

There are other factors in all this, including the social justice idea of raising test scores for students in low socioeconomic situations:

Disadvantaged kids, on the whole, make no progress in the summer . . . Some studies suggest they actually fall back. Wealthier kids have parents who read to them, have strong language skills and go to great lengths to give them learning opportunities such as computers, summer camp, vacations, music lessons, or playing on sports teams.

“If your parents are high school dropouts with low literacy levels and reading for pleasure is not hard-wired, it’s hard to be a good role model for your children, even if you really want to be”

Yet deep in the recesses of my brain, I recall reacting to such opinions as a parent who is highly involved in the lives of his children. “You think your government school is better at raising my children than me? How dare you take my children away from me even more than you already do?” Alternatively, I thought, “Why would you penalize those of us who can raise our children in constructive homes by pulling them out of them even more?”

But those reactions are simply rants. Better expressed is the opinion of Susan Schaefer Macaulay, who points out in For the Children’s Sake that children are persons, whole persons, and should be treated as such. I’d venture to connect the dots for her by saying that when we focus our efforts in schools entirely upon reading and math skills  as represented by standardized scores, the way folks like Education Secretary Arne Duncan seem to be doing, we are ignoring most of the person.

One of Macaulay’s points is that play is a crucial piece for developing the full “riches of humanness” (21). Her opinion arises out of Charlotte Mason’s observations about the critical nature of play: “Boys and girls must have time to invent episodes, carry on adventures, live heroic lives, lay sieges and carry forts, even if the fortress be an old armchair” (21). The danger of removing independent play or structuring children’s play is that “the child of today has the rich creative play-response crushed out” (22).

The kind of play Macaulay encourages, and the kind of play children cherish most, is independent and creative. The most important element to such play is time, and more hours in school is highly unlikely to produce it.

School hours are like a monster (however excellent that school may be), gobbling up the child’s treasure of time. [Providing ample time] is often easier home-based than institution-based. There should be space, and lots of free time. (22-23)

I will not reveal my opinions on health care, but I will admit that I reject few ideas as thoroughly or soundly as the idea that more time in school will improve our children. It may raise their test scores, but the cost of such high scores will be not be calculable.

I find myself revisiting the wonderfully evocative scenes of The Sandlot and wonder if the children of our test score-junkie culture will squeeze the imaginative lives from them “forever . . . forever . . .”

Thanks for reading.