THE mandarins of education and politics drone the mantra: To compete with the Japanese and the Europeans, our children should spend more time in school.
Recently, the National Education Commission on Time and Learning released ``Prisoners of Time,'' a report asserting that students in the United States receive less than half the daily instruction in core academic subjects that Japanese, French, and German students receive.
The commission found that US children spend 5.6 hours a day in the classroom, but average only three hours a day of academic instruction.
``In practical terms,'' according to the report, ``this means that most foreign students are studying literature, science, and two or more languages, while many of our young people spend their time in study halls, pep rallies, driver education, and assemblies.''
The commission urged that the number of hours spent on purely academic studies be increased, and that for most children the school day and the school year be lengthened. The typical six-hour, 180-day school year, the commission argues, ``should be relegated to museums, an exhibit from our education past.''
Pundits from the Pacific to the Atlantic rushed to endorse the panacea of more school hours. Perhaps they rushed too quickly.
The arguments for longer school hours have less to do with academics than with other issues. For example, it's true that the old-fashioned school schedule, created for an agricultural economy when children were needed for chores after school and for summer harvests, does not match the typical work schedule of parents today.
But scheduling is less of an academic issue than it is a child-care issue. Let's be honest about this. If schools were to keep our kids for eight hours - or, if we really want to match the schedules of working parents, 10 or more hours, factoring in commuting time - I suppose our lives would be more convenient, though not necessarily improved. Yet children burn out, just like parents do.
Another argument made for more school hours is that our neighborhoods aren't safe.
``In many urban areas, the school is the only safe place to be,'' Deputy Education Secretary Madeleine Kunin said recently. ``The longer you keep the schools open, the more lives you save.''
This is undoubtedly true. But placing our children in protective custody may not be the best way to make our neighborhoods safe. Certainly it's not the only way.
The purely academic argument for longer school hours is, in fact, less convincing than the other rationalizations. In 1966, sociologist James Coleman conducted a huge survey of public schools. He concluded that ``schools are remarkably similar in the effect they have ... when the socioeconomic background of the students is taken into account.''
One sociologist summed up Mr. Coleman's finding: ``It's all family.''
More-recent studies point to the same conclusion. The Educational Testing Service estimates that 90 percent of the differences between students of different states can be explained by the number of days absent from school, the number of hours spent watching television, the number of pages read for homework, the quantity and quality of reading material in the home, and the presence of two parents in the home.
Revealingly, there is no great national push by parents for longer school hours. Most are profoundly ambivalent about the growing number of hours that their children reside in someone else's care. While they may feel grateful for after-school programs, they also feel guilty and angry that they're missing out on so much of their children's lives. Given a choice, many parents would rather have more flexibility in their own work schedules, shorter work days for themselves, and longer family vacations.
Yet the movement toward longer school hours has begun. In district after district, summer vacations are being shortened or eliminated. In Murfreesboro, Tenn., schools stay open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. In Denver, school officials talk about the need for ``surround care.''
Schools should keep their doors open longer, with extended-hours classrooms packed with volunteer parents, business mentors, and seniors. But this extended schedule should be voluntary. Unfortunately, too many mandarins of education distrust parents and community; their impulse is to institutionalize.
Rather than having school boards mandate longer schedules that attempt to replace parents, workplaces should become more family-friendly. Tax dollars should go into building community services beyond the schools and to programs that help parents be parents. A model is the Parents as Teachers program, pioneered in Missouri, which sends supportive, nurturing parent-educators into the homes of parents of infants and toddlers.
In Missouri, participating children score significantly higher in intellectual and linguistic development; the program works about as well with children of parents with doctorates as with children of high school dropouts.
The primary and legitimate concern of the Commission on Time and Learning is to increase the amount of time spent on core subjects. We don't have to lengthen the school day to do that. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.