Less summer, more school

school-bus2For the last month the refrain in the Pradhan household has been something like this:
“What did you learn today?” I ask my 7-year-old.
“Not a thing,” she replies.

It’s the beginning of October, a month after school started, but it seems we are still in revision mode, designed for those kids who spent summer assiduously forgetting whatever they learnt in 1st grade.  Not that my daughter spent summer swotting; she has just managed to retain whatever she knew 3 months ago.

It’s frustrating for a parent, even if school is free (well, paid for only indirectly by my property taxes, anyway). While it is fine to treat school as a place where 7-year-olds go to socialize, one wishes they would get on with the program- it’s not reassuring when I get bombarded with data everyday that show kids in other countries doing better in every educational metric than kids in the US.

So the announcement last week that the Obama administration is going to propose longer school hours/more school days is very welcome. Education secretary Arne Duncan even dared to make the announcement on The Colbert Report; if that isn’t serious talk, I don’t know what is.

Geetha Venkatraman, a parent in Raleigh, North Carolina, concurs. “More school days would mean subjects get taught in more depth,” she says. “For instance, if kids are learning about electricity, there would be time to visit the local plant as a field trip.” Her kids are already on an experimental track system at their school. Instead of having the holidays all bunched together in the summer, they have 9 weeks of school followed by 3 weeks off. The number of instructional days is the same as the rest of the country ( a miserly 180 days or so), but the staggered holidays mean

a) there is less chance of kids forgetting what they’ve learnt and

b) teachers use the intervals to give struggling kids extra work and extra help to catch up with the class.

Kids also use the break to de-stress and pursue their hobbies. “My kids and I love this system,” says Geetha, who concedes that it can be tough on parents who both work and have to arrange for child care several times a year. (Camps in the county run throughout the year helping out working parents.) On the other hand, travel to India would be a lot easier as vacationers would not have crowd the airlines, lemming-like, in the months of June and December.

I asked a teacher friend in the local school system whether the long summer break was indeed a problem for kids. “Absolutely! I have to begin with alphabets and blending all over again because kids have forgotten everything.” (She is a first grade teacher.) Her school has more kids from poorer homes. One of the effects of the long summer holiday is the exacerbation of the rich/poor gap, as kids from upper middle class homes retain learning better through reinforcement in the form of either enrichment camps during the summer or a lot more reading at home.

This friend is in favor of more school days even though it would mean more work for her. Would other teachers feel the same? “I’m sure there would be some resistance,” she admits. Long time teachers (and thanks to tenure, most teachers have been around for a while) are used to a pattern of work on/work off that may be hard to give up. But there are some definite advantages for teachers too. Presumable one is looking at higher pay levels, but there is also more time to get the curriculum into unwilling heads. There’s time, as Geetha said, to get into a subject in more depth, and there would be the whole month of September to devote to the grade-appropriate curriculum instead of wasting on revision.

For homes with 2 working parents, the concept of more school is particularly attractive. Less summer=fewer summer camps=more savings. Given that school is free, summer is a big drain on the wallet as we scramble to find alternate arrangements for kids.

Gone are the days of my childhood where we just lounged around in the torpid heat, content to re-read our books and be bored till the cooler evenings when we would hang out with our friends. Kids today spend summer in camps (usually with an academic component), given the busy schedules of their parents and the isolating patterns of housing development. So if more school also means more time to learn and less homework per day, the idea sounds like a win-win for just about everybody.

Picture courtesy Lone Gunman via Creative Commons.

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