Longer School Year?

AMERICA needs a better educated work force if it is going to be competitive. One answer being advanced - and it's not a new one - is to lengthen the school year.

Japanese students attend school 243 days a year; the German school year is 210 days. And Americans? They are in class 175 to 180 days a year. No wonder the Japanese grow up to build such nifty cars. Or so goes the reasoning.

A longer US school year is probably not a bad idea, though it should not become mandatory. A time frame closer to the British average, 190 to 195 days (an extra three weeks), is realistic both for reasons of cost and support.

If a longer school year is joined to a more serious effort - by teachers and especially parents - to help students love to learn and think expansively, it will mean something.

If, however, a longer school year is simply a rallying cry for politicians looking for a cure-all, no thanks. The problem is not that students aren't fed enough facts. The problem is that the value of learning - the search for truth and excellence - is not taken seriously enough in the US. Too little worth is made of time already spent in school.

Longer school years to upgrade math and science instruction were tried in Texas and Florida in the early '80s. Improvement was marginal.

One notion of the year-round school crowd is that the American school year derives from the 19th century - that it's a relic of the days when children had to help with the harvest. Why base a year on old agricultural cycles?

Yet if time away from school is well spent, there's no loss. Learning often takes place in seasons. Time for work, life experience, and independent thought is not wasted.

Experiments with longer years are needed. For reasons of cost and choice, this could commence at selected schools in a district. If successful, parents will lobby for more such schools. This will help build the political support needed to get funding for such programs.

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