Monday, October 4, 2010

The Extend School Year

The Extend School Year (ESY) has always had its peaks and valleys of interest. Recently it has climbed to a peak once again thought to be a meaningful aspect of school reform. This renewed interest is largely driven by the general failures of U.S. teenagers to compare effectively in academic testing vs. their peers; (teens only because recall that 4th graders actually do well against their international peers). Sadly one of the weaker arguments in favor of an ESY is the ‘copy what works’ method in that some believe that just because others are successful that success can be replicated simply by doing the same thing without considering differences in the environment. Not surprisingly this rationality is rather shortsighted and foolish. Another issue plaguing ESY is, like with most ideas in society, ESY proponents rarely delve into how to effectively apply it. For example here are five issues that must be addressed when discussing the application of an extended school year beyond just a small little niche community:

1. Clearly an educational institution will require a greater yearly budget if its time of operation is extended and current results are to at least be maintained; while this issue is actually brought up by most ESY proponents, none seem to suggest how much money will be required and where that money will come from. Also none dare mention any possibility of an increase in taxes to raise the funds, which will more than likely have to happen if one does not want to increase the federal and state deficits.

2. One issue that most individuals brush under the rug when discussing an ESY is student motivation. If students are not motivated to learn, no amount of additional time will be effective when trying to teach them. Few ESY proponents have even considered asking the question of how to address the very real potential of a decreasing motivation to learn from the student perspective when instituting an ESY, especially in teenagers who typically use the summer months to apply for internships and other short-term work.

3. Another motivational element behind the push for an ESY is the belief that students tend to forget a sufficient amount of what they learned in the last year over the course of the summer. While true, a belief that simply teaching for a longer period of time will solve this problem is naïve. The reason U.S. students are not doing well relative to their peers is not primarily derived from time issues.

Suppose for a moment that the questions on a particular international test were organized in order of appearance (basically the first questions addressed the first sub-subject that was taught in the given class, what was taught in late August/early September, and each question set proceeded in the same order with the questions ending in late June/early July). If ESY were a legitimate solution right now that could be implemented on its own, then the results of such an examination would demonstrate a general pattern of performance equality between the international students and the U.S. students up until the end of the test. At the end of the test U.S. student performances should then fall off the proverbial cliff because they did not have enough time in school to learn that portion of the material. Sadly this result would be incredibly surprising because the fact is as a whole international students are getting a higher quality education over their U.S. counterparts regardless of time in school. This element of quality vs. quantity boils down to simple rationality that applying an ESY system before addressing lesson quality is similar to putting the cart before the horse and thus a recipe for wasted time and money.

In fact do people, ESY supporters or detractors, even ask why students forget over the ‘summer doldrums’? The most popular answer is that lack of exposure to various math, science, language, history, etc. problems/questions slowly unravel memory and connections learned during the previous school year. Therefore, an ESY will lessen the dead time between these problems, thereby reducing the total time allotted for these students to forget. However, read over that last sentence and then ask the question, “Why is learning by rote deemed an acceptable response?” If these students were taught how to develop proper solution methodologies for solving problems, then the layoff time would be irrelevant because instead of relying on rote memorization to learn and solve problems, students would have a base methodology for solving problems hastening recovery time as well as lowering the time required to learn new things.

Another option is instead of extending the school year, challenge students by giving bi-weekly assignments over the summer (the assignments can be delivered via email, direct mail or posted on a community/school bulletin board). These assignments will take the place of the ‘general review’ that some teachers believe has to be conducted at the beginning of the new school year due to what is forgotten over the summer. In addition these assignments would help the students develop a ‘do-it-yourself’ independence because when entering the workforce as adults they are not going to be able to run to a teacher to help them with every little assignment. These assignments could even be used to determine part of the grade (5%-10%) to ensure students undertake them. The above solution is probably only one of a number of solutions that can be utilized before resorting to the expensive method of extending the school year for the purposes of reducing the significance of memory loss. Overall the only reason for establishing additional school time is if the instructors in the school specifically report that they don’t have enough time to cover all of the relevant subject material.

4. ESY supporters seem to completely ignore the fact that there are non-charter public schools that graduate extremely well prepared and intelligent students without having to resort to extending the school year. Maybe ESY supporters should ask how these schools accomplish such a feat instead of looking to emulate small scale niche specific charter schools that have teaching methodologies that are more difficult to scale-up than most proponents want to believe.

5. Not surprisingly, because most educational reformers come off as anti-teacher frequently citing the 3-month ‘vacation’ time that teachers receive in their arguments, there is little discussion of teacher fatigue when considering an ESY option. Most of the schools that currently use an ESY are smaller charter schools that have 10-15 students per class, which applies significantly less stress on the teacher versus a class size of 25-35 students; (the difference in class size is of course another issue that most charter school proponents fail to acknowledge). Also individual teachers in the U.S. already teach an average of 1,100 hours a year versus an average of 650 hours a year for other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This difference in teaching time is largely carried out through the application of a teaching rotational system and group teaching, another element that school reformers want to copy, but then fail to actually think about how to effectively administer it. Without such a system in an ESY application, it is rational to conclude that teachers are expected to teach an additional 135-145 hours (12.3 – 13.2% more work).

For those that still wish to attack the total number of work hours a teacher undertakes the above number does not include the hours that go into prepping for a class, studying classroom teaching strategy, researching new teaching strategies and techniques, taking classes to update skills (something most other occupations rarely do), coaching or supervising extracurricular activities and the omnipresent grading assignments/tests. All of these activities add a considerable amount of more time to the workloads of the average teacher destroying the ‘3 months of vacation, so teachers don’t work sufficiently long’ argument.

These simple five points have demonstrated that for those individuals that want to scale-up the application of an ESY system on a national level a lot more work and thought need to go into the execution of the plan over what has currently occurred in popular circles of conversation. The simple, yet ironic, fact is that for an ESY system to be successful it will require other significant reforms to be applied as well, but overall in such a scenario an ESY will prove to be rather ineffective relative to those other reforms.

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