Getting serious about school

Posted: Sep 30, 2005 11:40 AM

President Bush is wrong.

“Gov. Perdue of Georgia, I thought, showed leadership by saying, ‘We’ve got to anticipate a problem, here’s what we need to do to correct it,’” the president recently told reporters. Well, Bush is correct that Sonny Perdue showed leadership. But he’s wrong to praise that leadership, because Perdue’s leading us in the wrong direction.

Perdue asked local school districts to cancel classes on Sept. 26 and 27. He called the days off “snow days,” but they were really “hurricane days,” called to save fuel after Hurricane Rita slowed down refineries on the Gulf Coast. “[The closings] will save almost 500,000 gallons in diesel fuel,” Perdue announced. Plus, he added, the state will save energy by closing the school buildings.

Here’s an idea: Let’s save even more fuel and energy. Let’s simply close schools down altogether. Sure, we’d be sacrificing our children’s future, but at least we’d save energy in the present.

The real problem here is that nobody -- not the state, not the parents, not the students -- seems serious about education.

“I won’t be getting any work done at all,” one parent complained about the closure. “I don’t have child care!” another whined. As if the biggest problem here is the disruption to their schedule. Meanwhile, students went to roller rinks, golf courses, malls, etc. Very educational.

Some parents put their finger on the problem. “We didn’t think it was the best solution for conserving gas,” Randy Faigin David told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Education is always the first thing to get cut.”

“Georgia needs to do everything it can to improve its education status,” parent Elizabeth Hanna told the paper. She’s right. Think about it this way: Could your employer simply shut down on a Monday and Tuesday to save fuel?

Somehow factories, dry cleaners, supermarkets and doughnut shops across Georgia and across the country managed to remain open, even with higher fuel costs. That’s because they’re serious about their business, and they realize that if they close for a few days, they might be closed for good.

On the other hand, we close schools when there’s an inch of snow or a hurricane in another state, and most parents get worked up not because their children are missing valuable educational time, but because they’re now required to find something to do with their children.

It’s no surprise our students aren’t learning enough. We’re not giving them a chance.

After all, test scores go down the longer children remain in school. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study studies students in 46 countries. In 2003, it found that American fourth-graders trailed students in 11 other countries. As if that wasn’t bad enough, by eighth-grade, American students trailed 14 countries. There’s a similar trend in science. 

Maybe that’s because our school year isn’t long enough. Japanese students spend seven weeks longer in school than American students -- about 240 days instead of about 180 here. That’s a problem, so here’s a bold proposal: Let’s make school a full-time job.

Our current school year -- 10 months on and two off, with frequent breaks during the year -- no longer makes sense. If we treated school as a job, students would have a similar amount of time off as their parents do. Let’s say four weeks total. That’s two in the summer (those weeks can vary by district, so all the students in a state aren’t off at once) and two throughout the year.

Parents would still be able to pull their children out of school for vacations.
But just as you have to make sure your job is getting done when you’re away from the office, the students would need to check with their teachers and determine what material would be covered while they were gone. They could take those books along and read them instead of the latest Harry Potter. Or, maybe, in addition to the latest Harry Potter.

The teacher’s unions will oppose this proposal, of course. But they also oppose school vouchers and any number of smaller measures that might improve education.
As long as we’re going to consider changing the way we approach education, let’s make sure that change is large enough to make a real difference.

Each June, teens graduate and head for the beach in cars with “The tassel was worth the hassle” soaped on the windows. Well, it’s time to make school a real hassle.

Going to class should be a full-time job, not a part-time one that’s frequently interrupted because of bad weather. When we get serious about school, we’ll get serious students who are prepared for real life.