When Woodrow Harding was a boy, growing up in North Carolina, nothingm took precedence over bringing in the peanut and cotton crop - not even education. The school year was molded to fit the slack and busy periods of the growing season.
For young Woodrow that meant spending the month of August confined in a steaming-hot classroom. It wasn't until harvest time in the fall that school closed, and even then it was no vacation, only ''back-breaking work.''
Now, decades later, Mr. Harding may find himself back in school in August - and September too. He is a high school teacher in Halifax county, N.C., one of two school districts in the state that have volunteered to try an extended school year, starting this year.
''I'm not sure how I feel about the idea; they've sprung it on us so fast,'' he says. ''I think it would help in the long run, and I certainly don't need to get used to the idea of working in August, but there are some things - like more school supplies - that are just as important as more hours or days.''
Nearly drowned out in the swelling tide of debate over merit pay for teachers is another recommendation by the two commissions whose reports touched off the current flood of comment on the quality of education. That recommendation is the concept of an extended school year, generally 200 to 220 days, up from the near-universal 175 to 180 days currently in vogue.
Both the National Commission on Excellence in its report, ''A Nation at Risk, '' and the report of the task force created by the Education Commission of the States, entitled ''Action for Excellence,'' recommend lengthening the school year.
Tommy Tomlinson, principal researcher for the Commission on Excellence says: ''Our recommendation is based primarily on dramatic evidence from Japan and other countries which spend more time in school and typically do better than American schools. There is evidence that the more time one spends on task the more one tends to learn.''
It is no coincidence that North Carolina is one of the first to act on the suggestions. Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. is chairman of the Task Force on Education for Economic Growth, which produced ''Action for Excellence.'' North Carolina wanted three school districts to extend their school years and days; two volunteered. The experiment is scheduled to last three years, beginning in August, pending final approval by the state legislature.
At least a dozen other states are said to be looking at similar proposals, including Nevada, which is ''seriously considering the idea of an extended school year,'' according to Ted Sanders, superintendent of public instruction. In North Dakota, ''a legislative study committee will be taking it up shortly,'' according to Elmer Huber, deputy superintendent of public instruction.
Around the turn of the century, the school year for most public schools in the US was roughly 120 to 135 days. With much of the nation's population still on the farm, extra hands were needed to push ploughs, not pencils, at critical times of the year.
Roughly coincidental with the urbanization of America, the number of days in the school year climbed steadily thoughout the first half of the century, topping out at 180 days in the '40s and '50s. Though there is no scientific reason why the school year isn't longer, virtually all 50 states have adopted the 180-day format, give or take five days.
That format is just fine for a number of teachers and administrators who see complicated problems with teachers' contracts if attempts are made to extend the school year. They also say that practical concerns, including the lack of air conditioning in many schools, should not be downplayed.
Others believe that, like merit pay, the extended school year is not the ultimate solution to the quality-of-education quandary. They say it is not a solution that ought to be tried on its own, but in conjunction with other reforms may be worth considering.
Dr. Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, believes it is a matter of quality versus quantity: ''What we need is not more time, but better use of time. Our primary time problem now is the rigidity of the 50-minute class, not the length of the school year. The extended school year is the kind of thing that becomes very complicated in a political sense. I don't think we are on the brink of seeing widespread acceptance of it.''
Aside from the philosophical concerns, there is the very real problem of money. State legislators are feeling political pressure to do something about the decline in the quality of public education, or at least the widespread public perception of such a decline. But they are hesitant to release more funds in order to achieve that goal.
Backers of the extended-year program in North Carolina are asking the Legislative Assembly for $4.5 million to cover the cost of the program in two school districts.