Massachusetts Lawmaker Pushes For Longer Public School Year

Although some say more class time is not panacea for US achievement shortfall, support for idea grows; New Orleans schools experiment

AS education experts around the country ponder America's lagging student achievement record, a Massachusetts state senator proposes a simple solution: add 40 more days to the standard 180-day school year. ``It's beautifully simple as a concept, unlike almost everything else in educational excellence,'' says Sen. Michael Barrett (D) of Cambridge. Senator Barrett filed a bill to extend the Bay State's 180-day school year last month.

Although Mr. Barrett's proposal is not new, it is getting attention among policymakers, educators, and business leaders. The Massachusetts lawmaker, author of a November Atlantic magazine article on the subject, points out that the United States has the one of the shortest school years in the industrial world. He notes the number of days in a sampling of other countries: Japan, 243; West Germany 226 to 240; Hong Kong, 195; Thailand, 200; Hungary, 192.

Barrett says our short school-year is one reason American students lag behind foreigners on achievement tests. He cites a study by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement comparing material covered in the classroom prior to a 1981-82 12th grade math achievement test. Results showed that Japanese students had been exposed to 92 percent of the algebra, geometry, and calculus problems on the test, while American students had been taught only 54 percent of the material in those categories.

Studies like these show how lacking and outdated our education system is, Barrett says. He says the minimum 180-day American school year was originally designed for an agrarian society. Massachusetts began its first official 12-week school year, pushed by educational reformer Horace Mann, in the 1840s. Surveys that show the American public is now ready to extend the year once again. In a 1989 Gallup poll, 48 percent of those surveyed said they were in favor of extending the school year, 44 percent were opposed, and 8 percent were undecided.

But not everyone is convinced this is the way to improve America's schools. Some educators advocate reforms - like improved curriculums, better teachers, and more individualized instruction - rather than just tacking on more school days.

``I think the idea of extending the school year in general is rather superficial,'' says Arthur Levine, senior lecturer at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. ``It could be a great idea. It could be a wonderful idea but it's not a stand-alone.''

But Barrett rejects the idea that it is an issue of quality vs. quantity. ``Think of it in terms of the ability of the ... typically committed teacher to work with the rather committed student and then ask whether we can ever teach our kids as much in 180 days as the Europeans do in 40 more days a year, and the Japanese do in 60 more days a year.''

Educators acknowledge that students may not be getting enough classroom time. More time is needed to teach things like computer education in addition to the regular reading, writing, and 'rithmetic classes, says Tony Croce, a high school science teacher, and the president of Newton Teachers Association in Newton, Mass.

``What happens is the average time to treat the regular curriculum has shrunk,'' Mr. Croce says.

Generally all states have about a 180-day school year. Although a few states have considered extending the number of days, none has actually mandated a permanent extension. Some schools, however, have experimented with longer school years on their own. Two schools in inner-city New Orleans, for example, are operating on a 220-day calendar while one pilot program in Kansas City, Mo., has extended its school-year by 46 days. In addition, many cities in the western US, like Los Angeles, have year-round classes with longer vacations in between.

In 1983, North Carolina increased its school year to 200 days in two school districts as an experiment, but both districts are now back on a regular schedule, says Chris Pipho, a spokesman for the Education Commission of the States. One reason was community resistance to the change, Mr. Pipho says.

Money is a big concern. The added costs - including increasing salaries and providing air-conditioned classrooms - would be too great for many school boards to even consider. In addition, states wrestling with budget shortfalls, like Massachusetts, simply can't afford to increase local aid money for schools. Barrett says funding should come from a combination of federal, state, and local sources.

Although public support for the idea is growing, Barrett says it is hard to change traditional American notions about summer. Parents often say children can learn just as much during summer through family vacations, camp, and part-time jobs.

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