One of the few bright spots in the Obama Administration has been its efforts regarding public education, an arena in which the federal government has become far too invasive. Obama and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, have taken on ever so slightly some of the education bureaucracy – a startling development, considering that the education unions threw $50 million or more at Obama’s campaign and those of other Democrats. Obama had made some statements about challenging the educational establishment in The Audacity of Hope, but somehow it seemed like empty campaign rhetoric. So amidst this glint of optimism, it was profoundly disappointing to hear that Duncan laid a giant egg in his recent statements about the length of the school year.
At first glance, Duncan’s comments to the National Press Club were appealing. The Secretary spoke candidly about how the country has to get serious about education. He joked about kids going to school 13 months a year, but also thoughtfully observed that we must introduce significant reforms into a public education system that, after all, originated over a century ago when America had an agrarian economy. He said “In all seriousness, I think schools should be open 12, 13, 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and 11-12 months of the year.” Continuing this theme, he added “This is not just more of the same. There would be a whole variety of after-school programs. Obviously academics would be at the heart of that, but you top it off with dancing, art, drama, music, yearbook, and robotics, activities for older siblings and parents, and ESL classes.” He also pointed that, where students attend school for 25-30 days more than we do, the countries are beating us. Considering the source, this tough talk was unexpected.
Then reality set in, and it should be obvious that there are two very compelling reasons that this proposal is so far off base. Yes, there are other countries whose children attend school for longer periods, and this needs to be considered as part of our educational reforms. We must also keep in mind that curriculums are more complicated today. The most sophisticated math taught in the high schools of forty years ago is now taught in 7th or 8th grade, and this increased complexity is reflected in the hard sciences, such as physics and chemistry.