Sunday, July 28, 2013

Year-Round Schools Are Not a Magic Answer

Recently on Real Time, The Daily Caller's Matt Lewis couldn't resist taking a dig at teachers and unions,
What about the teacher's unions, who wanna... the teacher's unions who insist on this 19th century educational process, I mean, we take summers off because that's when people used to farm and stuff, 'cause they, 'cause the teachers want to go on vacation.
The statement itself is far from a monument to good logic, but more than that, given how short the statement is, it's remarkable for its inaccuracy.
What about the teacher's unions, who wanna... the teacher's unions who insist on this 19th century educational process...
Teacher's unions? As Lewis should know, not every state has teacher's unions, and the states that ban teacher unions have terrible educational records. Although teacher's unions can complicate some experiments, due to such factors as contractually negotiated rules about the treatment of teachers and assignments to schools, many public schools have experimented with different educational models - open schools, Montessori, extra school hours, year-round school, and the like. It's not the teacher's unions that have been attempting to dictate and micromanage the classroom, or impose more and more standardized tests with higher and higher stakes, the sort of approaches that stifle classroom innovation and entrench the "19th century educational process". If administrators come up with innovations that they believe will move their schools out of the "19th century educational process", they are free to propose those ideas to teacher's unions and, to the extent that a collective bargaining agreement interferes with their proposals, negotiate for changes in the contract. Where would Lewis suggest that I look for these reform ideas that are being stifled by teacher's unions? When I try to find proposed innovations in pedagogy from school administrators, the silence is deafening - and I seem to instead find administrators trying to force schools that aren't following the standard model to get back with the program.
...this 19th century educational process, I mean, we take summers off because that's when people used to farm and stuff...
It's somewhat amazing to me that Lewis can both recognize that what is often referenced as the "factory school" model is a "19th century educational process" and then attribute it to farming - As if we used to be a fully industrialized society until the "agricultural revolution" pushed us into agriculture. Lewis might look at major cities within the United States, where even in the 19th century few to no students would have been involved in agriculture, and ask himself, "Why would those nations and cities have adopted an agricultural calendar?" As for agriculture, does Lewis truly believe that the summers were the busy season for 19th century farms? Plant in the spring, harvest in the fall, and... what am I missing? And why do most other nations, including those with little connection with agriculture, offer summer recesses.

As it turns out, the summer recess is a product of industrialization. Once you move significantly past the one room schoolhouse, schools needed to start standardizing grades and admission dates. Urban schools evolved from a year-round schedule (because factory workers didn't want to have to worry about child care) to one that better facilitated the administration of schools and the standardization of educational materials, textbooks and curricula across a district. As should be no surprise, prior to this "19th century educational process", schools in agricultural areas would often have breaks in spring and fall instead of the summer.
...'cause they, 'cause the teachers want to go on vacation.
I can almost imagine young Matt Lewis, teary-eyed at the thought of leaving his school for a couple of months, and absolutely perplexed by the joy of his peers at having the summer off. I nonetheless suspect that he may have noticed that it was not only teachers who were happy to get a couple of months off during the summer. As much as parents can find it difficult to arrange for day camps during the summer break, it's also nice to have a period of time when you can schedule a vacation without having to worry about the kids missing school.

Lewis is implying that the biggest problem with our (non-)farm based school calendar is the summer vacation, and that year-round schooling would be a miracle cure for all that ails public education but for those pesky teacher's unions. (He is apparently not aware that the summer camp industry has lobbied hard, for decades, against year-round schooling.) But look around: Where can I find any people or groups who are actively trying to make schools run year-round? When I look at charter schools, I see some that have expanded the number of classroom hours, but even KIPP schools take a summer recess. When I look at private schools, those who are most beholden to the wishes of parents, I again see them offering a summer recess. When I look at international schools in the southern hemisphere, where the public schools have a summer recess over our winter months, I find that many follow the schedule of the northern nations from which their students hail. As previously mentioned, states that ban teacher's unions have summer vacations. Very few people are actively seeking to change the status quo, so there's virtually nothing for teacher's unions to oppose.

Why don't more schools follow a year-round calendar? From an educational standpoint, the first question is whether that "year-round calendar" will involve more days of classroom instruction or if it will instead mean having more frequent, longer holidays during non-summer months and a shorter recess in the summer. As it turns out, kids backslide over any holiday. While there's going to be more backsliding over a long holiday than over a short holiday, the important consideration is the cumulative effect, as well as how much classroom time it takes to bring students back up to speed after a holiday. Were Lewis to investigate, he would find that experiments with year-round schooling have not improved student performance, with the most likely explanation being that the cumulative effect of longer vacations spread throughout the year roughly equals the impact of the longer summer break. Year-round schools also report higher problems with absenteeism - a problem that echoes some of the concerns that led to the "19th century educational process" in the first place, as absenteeism was higher prior to the standardization of the school year.

If you shift the subject to "more classroom hours", that's really not a discussion of summer vacations - it's a discussion of how many days per year and hours per day a student should spend in school. Programs like KIPP and similar experiments by public schools suggest that, particularly with a vulnerable student population, more hours in school will boost performance. The picture gets more complicated, though, when you start looking at pedagogy, or looking beyond those disadvantaged populations, and you find that there are nations with high performing students who receive no more hours of classroom instruction, and perhaps less classroom instruction, than students in a typical U.S. school.

When you increase the number of hours of classroom instruction, or expand the number of days in the school year, costs go up. And no, contrary to Lewis's suggestion it's not about greedy teachers who insist upon getting a pay increase merely because we want them to work more days and hours (can you imagine such a thing?), but it also means that you must provide support staff, transportation, utilities and supplies, and administration for those extra hours and days of education. If you want to expand school into the summer months you may have to add air conditioning, as well as construct shaded areas in playgrounds while installing additional water fountains. School administrators often schedule building maintenance over the summer, and having students present complicates scheduling as well as creating issues with exposure to construction areas, building materials, paint fumes, and the like.

In short, Lewis is wrong that the primary impediment to year-round schooling is teacher's unions, is wrong that we have summer holidays because of an agricultural calendar, and is wrong in his implication that year-round schooling would remedy the problems with our nation's schools. He's correct that teachers like their summer vacations, but... who doesn't? At the end, is that what we're really talking about - jealousy that teaching is one of the few professions in this nation that enjoys a significant amount of vacation time? If not, assuming that they see their public role as involving more than just teacher-bashing, people like Lewis should learn the facts before they attempt to influence the debate.

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