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Shorten the School Year

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Vincent Gray, who is the mayor of Washington, D.C., which has some of the worst public schools in America, has an idea he believes will improve them: Keep children there longer.

"It is time for us to get rid of what I think is an agrarian concept," Gray told a Washington radio station this spring, "and that is the days, in the 19th century, when it was thought that children had to get home early to help out with the chores, when they had to get out of school in June and go back at the end of the summer to help out with the farming.

"Well, we are long past that era at this stage, and I think we can improve outcomes for children by expanding that," said Gray. "So, my first step is to look: Can we take a few schools, extend the day. Take a few schools, extend the year."

"We have found that school ending at 3 p.m. does not work for anyone," Gray said elsewhere, according to the Washington Informer.

He would like to see kids stuck at school as late as 5:00 p.m. -- and not so they can practice basketball or the spring play.

"By having an extended school day, we can have after-school programs that can help our students academically," the mayor said.

This is akin to deciding that since a little bit of poison has not sickened the child, perhaps a larger dose will do.

When I was in elementary school, I hated attending class. But I learned things there.

However, I did not have the misfortune of attending an inner-city government-controlled school operated by overpaid members of a teachers union. I went to a Catholic school operated by Dominican sisters.

I remember learning the multiplication tables. The sister stood at the front of the classroom with large flashcards and made us go over them and over them -- until every student knew them by heart.

We learned vocabulary and spelling the same way: rote memorization.

We sometimes learned history and social studies by outlining the textbooks -- writing out by hand the first sentence of each paragraph in the book. By the time we finished outlining a text, we knew what it said.

And we did this work in the classroom, during normal school hours, which began at 8:05 a.m. and ended at 3:00 p.m.

After that, we bolted for the door and did not look back.

We did not need vast homework assignments because we did vast amounts of work at school. That was the entire purpose of those seven hours from 8:05 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. The late afternoon was well-deserved playtime.

So was summertime. Nine months in a classroom was long enough. When the days grew longer and sunnier, it was time to be outside running around in the fresh air.

We played basketball. We played football. We played hide-and-go-seek. We played with our dogs. We traded baseball cards. We walked around the neighborhood and visited with our friends.

You could do that in those days -- way back in the 1960s.

The inherent nature and learning potential of American children have not changed since then. But our society has. Today, public schools think they have better things to do than make children learn the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic by sitting them in a seat and teaching it to them. Many parents think they have better things to do than parent their own children.

Parents who like the idea of a government-run school keeping their child in class until 5:00 p.m. every day and incarcerating them in school 12 months a year are not looking for an education so much as a full-time, taxpayer-funded babysitting service.

Public school teachers are not going to get any better at teaching children that 3 times 3 is 9 and that cat is spelt c-a-t if they get nearly full-time custody of American children.

What they will have is more time to indoctrinate kids into their way of looking at life.

We need to rebuild a country where kids can safely walk around their own neighborhoods after school and play with their friends -- having learned earlier that day a sufficient additional measure of reading, writing and math. We need to rebuild a country where kids can spend the entire summer any place but in a classroom. We don't need to lengthen the school year, we need schools that are good enough to let us shorten it.

But that will not happen as long as government's role in education extends to anything beyond giving parents an unfettered choice in where their children go to school.

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