Sunday, September 27, 2009

Summer Vacation at Risk Based on a Myth

It seems like every time Education Secretary Arne Duncan opens his mouth about reform of public education, he perpetuates myths and offers reforms based on those myths that I find very frustrating. For in the news today, President Obama and Duncan are both continuing with the argument that the American school day and week and year are too short. This is based on the erroneous idea that Asian and European kids who beat American kids on international tests spend more time in school. The Education Secretary again showed his ignorance of the history of public education when he said, "Our school calendar is based on the agrarian economy and not too many of our kids are working in the fields today." This is, of course, fundamentally not true.

First of all, up until the late nineteenth century, the school year, especially in the cities, was actually all year long. This was driven by the desire to have the kids in school so their parents could work, especially in factories. In rural areas, kids were given release time in the spring and fall for planting and harvesting - not "summer vacation" to work in the fields. The "agrarian model" explanation is a myth, and up-to-date education researchers have known this for years. The school calendar was not set so kids could help on the farm. Most of the work on a farm is done during spring and fall - planting and harvesting. Clearly, that is when the kids were most needed. The summer vacation schedule was set to appeal to middle and upper class families (the ones who actually went beyond sixth grade) because these families wanted to get out of the hot, crowded cities (and classrooms) during the summer months, especially before the days of air conditioning.

The "myth of summer vacation" has been well-documented over the years, though misperception persists. Perhaps the most informative analysis of the history comes from a really good read by Kenneth Gold, entitled School's In: The History of Summer Vacation in American Public Schools.

While there are arguments for longer school, the agrarian model is not one of them. Additionally, the longer school day has shown a definitive impact in struggling, urban populations, but suburban middle and upper class populations have never shown the "summer loss," and they are well-served by a myriad of summer activities that enhance and add to their education as well-rounded citizens in ways that more classroom time drilling for standardized tests doesn't. If we are going to have effective discussion about education reform, we need to dispense with the perpetuation of myths by the misinformed. Additionally, the article I linked to noted that the belief that others countries' students spend more time in school is also not true:

While it is true that kids in many other countries have more school days, it's not true they all spend more time in school. Kids in the U.S. spend more hours in school (1,146 instructional hours per year) than do kids in the Asian countries that persistently outscore the U.S. on math and science tests — Singapore (903), Taiwan (1,050), Japan (1,005) and Hong Kong (1,013). That is despite the fact that Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong have longer school years (190 to 201 days) than does the U.S. (180 days).

As I noted after watching the movie Two Million Minutes, critics have argued that by the time they graduate from high school, Chinese and Indian students will have spent twice as much time in school as American students. But that leads to the following questions:

Are their economies twice as large or powerful? Are their buildings and bridges twice as strong? Are their doctors and scientists twice as effective and efficient and innovative? Are their products twice as durable? Are their workers twice as productive?

The answer is, of course, no.

Arne Duncan and President Obama need to do a little more research before they start speaking of reform in education. Clearly, there is evidence that a longer school day, week, and year is helpful for struggling populations. However, my high school has a 90% school-wide pass rate on AP exams in nearly all subjects, and we have more honors classes than regular levels. And we do it with the current schedule.

If anything, our students can get through K-12 effectively in less time, not more.


Happy Elf Mom (Christine) said...

Great post! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

While I agree with most of your arguments, I have to question your "are their economies twice as strong?" idea. I believe that education does not only need to be dependent on an ROI, but rather the fact that more education will lead to a freer more self-sufficient populace that will uphold the values that America stands for.
Thanks for writing,
CCHS Student

mmazenko said...

Thanks for commenting, CCHS.

Your points are valid - and well articulated.

I would only note that in terms of educating creating that population to uphold our values, the emphasis could and should be on more efficient schooling, not simply more.

Benjamin Franklin finished high school at thirteen. Ralph Waldo Emerson completed Harvard at eighteen. Nothing prevented them from being a more self-sufficient population upholding American values. Emerson literally "wrote the book" on that with his essay "Self-Reliance."

The problem with Duncan is he is arbitrarily assigning value to "seat time," and that is naive at best.

Daughter of Eve said...

Summer vacation is necessary to both teachers' and students' sanity!! :P Seriously, not for sanity but just for a break! As long as you keep reading good books, and learning about creation, you're good! ;) And Mom (and I'm sure all other teachers) needs time to plan out the next school year! Being a full-time Mom and a schoolteacher doesn't leave a whole lot of time for planning the next year during the school year. :)

Felix said...

@Narnia: Learning about creation whaa?

Queen Lucy (of Narnia) said...

I don't get what the "whaa" is about. Learning about nature, of course! What else would it be? Kids should always play outside and learn new things.

Anonymous said...

To Mr. Mazenko

Like always, your criticism on Obama and Duncan’s “A Plan to Increase School Hours” is unquestionably logical and ingenious. However, while I strongly agree with most of your brilliant statement, I like to challenge some of your logics and ideas.
There’s no doubt that Obama and Duncan are doing an outstanding job playing the best, yet the most serious political comedy in 2009. However, their speeches on Education have more dept than just humiliating themselves. Their speeches show many misunderstandings about Asian education by many Americans and your statement also contains many misunderstandings about Asian education.
I am very impressed with your history of teaching English in Taiwan and learning Chinese and Chinese culture. I believe your view is much more balanced and brilliant than most of Americans since most of them don’t care or know about other cultures. However, I disagree with your views on test scores and a development of nations. There’s indeed no direct relationship between test scores and country’s GDP, military power or health care system. However, it’s illogical to compare two totally different countries and give a radical answer solely based on numbers and static. For example, America does have stronger economy and more efficient doctors and scientists than Singapore, Taiwan or South Korea. However, would it be fair to compare big, western, widely populated, diverse, immigration based, developed, resource rich country like America to small, eastern, very densely populated, fairly homogenous, developing, resource poor country like Singapore or Taiwan? Singapore, China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan are all developing countries.

Anonymous said...

It means even if we replace all of these people with really intelligent people, it would take years and years to strengthen its country like America. So, they are fundamentally different and it’s invalid to compare between them. Of course, that doesn’t mean Test scores have no relationship between country’s strength at all. Test scores do show the potential growth between similar countries. For example, Korea’s economic growth was very low when it had very low test scores. It was actually even lower than Vietnam or North Korea. However, after the spread of better education, Korea’s test score went up and eventually became much more developed than others. So, if Korea and Singapore have much higher test score than America, then it could mean that they might have stronger economy, buildings and better health care in the future. In fact, some of these developing countries already are more superior to some of developed countries in many ways. For example, Korea has very advanced Semiconductor technology and therefore, its cars, cell phones and computers became very influential in America.
Also, high test score and low economic growth doesn’t mean a test score is invalid. It just means a country’s inefficient education and job system. For example, country like Korea is too density populated and competitive that it’s almost impossible to get a wanted job. South Korean has 85%high graduates going to college while America has much lower high school graduates and students going to college. Moreover, unlike America, most of eastern Asians believe education to be very important because of influence of Confucianism. So, most of people can’t get a job they wanted even if they are very talented and well-educated. Moreover, some skills such as major in agriculture, art or music are much mistreated in Asian countries. They do not value them as important and therefore, many of these skilled people migrate to other countries. India has fewer educated people compare to its population. However, a country can’t efficiently use all of them. These push factors make many intelligent people in Asia to migrate to other countries like America for a better job and an opportunity.
It’s actually a huge misunderstanding that many poor people legally migrate to America. Historically, America has been made with many skilled and middle-class people. Most of poor people didn’t even have enough money to come to America in first place since it was very expensive for many centuries. A restriction of migration in recent years also made only skilled or wealthy ones to come to America. So, America was actually benefiting from its brain drain policy a lot.
Korea, Japan and Singapore have longer and stricter school hours. However, they also spend whole lot money on private lessons than Americans. Korean public education is not as good or efficient as American public education but since society itself is very competitive to get in to college or get a job, students study much harder and study ahead, which enforces them to take private lessons. This gives Americans an illusion that those countries actually have successful educational system. Moreover, Korea and Japan have very high teenage suicide rate, which clearly shows its negative consequences.
Obama was very impressed with the number of high school graduates and people who go to college in Asia. He said Americans should follow them probably because their systems seem very ideal. However, Obama didn’t understand a true reason and its harm. However, his statement of a relationship between test scores and nation’s strength is actually valid.

P.S I know it’s kind of late and this contains a lot of grammatical errors. I also know a normal student like me has no possibility of beating an intelligent teacher like Mr. Mazenko. However, I just wanted to practice my expression of ideas.
Another CCHS Student

Anonymous said...

Moreover, Asian students spend tremendous time learning English in school, which also shows inefficiency in Asian education and a flaw in Obama’s statement. Most of American students don’t need to spend as much time learning English as most of Asian students and American students also spend much less time learning second language such as Spanish, French or Chinese (They are important. However, they are not as important as English to Asian students. In fact, most of good Asian colleges and jobs require a skill of speaking in both native language and English.)
Another CCHS Student
P.S Ingore what I said in yesterday's P.S

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Anonymous said...

Very amazing statement ..i like the parts : " Are their economies twice as large or powerful? Are their buildings and bridges twice as strong? Are their doctors and scientists twice as effective and efficient and innovative? Are their products twice as durable? Are their workers twice as productive? "

Well its true..i hope there's a Summer Holiday in my country...and i will try to realize it when i grow up.

And based on this article, its proven that the long school times is not guarantee for someone cleverness.

Thank you for amazing writing!