For fiscal year 2013, according to usgovernmentspending.com, New York’s state and local education budgets total an estimated $75.1 billion — fully 10.9 percent of state spending and one-third of all spending by the state’s localities combined. The most recent (2009) data provided by the U.S. Census, adding in federal assistance, averages this out to around $16,000 per New York student per year, the highest in the nation.
This is a lot of money. The magnitude of this investment demonstrates the fundamental importance that New Yorkers place on education. However, it is no secret that we are not getting all we should be from it.
There are many factors that challenge the core task of improving and maximizing school performance. For one thing, educators today are compelled to ameliorate a range of social, motivational and behavioral problems presented (literally) at the school door before education can even commence.
Major schedule defect
Fortunately, there is no shortage of “good” ideas to address these and other challenges; but there also is no panacea. Nonetheless, not one of them is likely to meet with sustained success until a major deficiency in the most basic aspect of our educational system is addressed.
The current school schedule is an anachronism. Created in response to the needs of an agrarian society, it has somehow persisted even though very few students today live on a family farm.
In the 19th century, when the movement for mandatory schooling first took hold, that schedule was structured to ensure that children would also be available daily and seasonally for essential farm chores.
In this way, schooling was harmonized with the needs of families and the community at large.
Needs are different now
Today’s parental and community needs are much different. A largely “9-to-5” society with parents commuting to and from work at the outer ends of the day has no need for children to be home, alone and unsupervised, during a significant portion of the day.
In this regard, the current school day starts and ends too early and, in doing so, serves neither students, their parents nor the community particularly well.
It’s also too short for the amount and complexity of material to be absorbed, as well as wholly out of sync with the kind of day that students are likely to experience as adults.
The school year calendar, too, is unbalanced, with an overly long summer break that demonstrably harms students’ ability to retain knowledge for the next step in their scholarship.
First, what’s needed is a school day that more closely tracks the current societal work paradigm. The additional time at school could be put to productive use in a number of ways: quiet study, collaborative projects, “homework,” extra help, advanced placement, remedial and review studies.
Science, music and art enrichment courses, as well as college-level coursework, could be offered, using telecommunication-aided distance-learning programs. Supervised recreation, including physical education, and “value-added activities” like community volunteering could be encouraged.
Older students could serve as tutors and mentors to younger students and receive some form of credit or other remuneration in the bargain.
Second, the school year should actually BE a year, with several staggered, but shortened, vacation periods that permit a rest, but avoid a wholesale loss of whatever was gained while school was in session.
The important thing is that students perceive school as a “full-time,” full-day, all-year commitment.
No easy task
However, just because a solution is relatively straightforward doesn’t mean that the task of implementing it won’t be challenging or complex.
State Education Law establishes minimum requirements for 180 instructional days with a daily average of five hours of instruction in elementary grades and 5.5 hours in secondary schools.
To illustrate, a Shenendehowa High School student’s day starts at 7:40 a.m., concludes at 2:40 p.m. and consists of nine 40-minute periods. To maximize efficient use of expensive resources like buses, start and dismissal times are staggered throughout the district’s schools. For example, Okte Elementary conducts its day from 9:05 a.m. to 3:15 p.m.
No maximums are expressly imposed, but certain aspects of the state law — including vital state aid — create (perhaps unintended) disincentives for districts to add instructional time on their own.
State aid is allocated to districts incrementally over those 180 days.
Aid is proportionally withheld if districts fall short, but no provision is made, at least generally, to compensate them for going beyond.
Districts are also barred from scheduling instructional days on weekends, certain holidays, during July and August and after the June Regents exams.
One can also anticipate skepticism and resistance from several sectors that see themselves as significantly invested in the existing structure and have valid concerns over how the changes will affect them and their interests.
A 2011 report titled “Learning Time in America: Trends to Reform the American School Calendar,” prepared by the Educational Commission of the States (www.ecs.org) and the National Center on Time and Learning (www.timeandlearning.org), goes into more comprehensive detail as to the nature and responses to those challenges in attempting to engineer this fundamental shift.
New York is also one of five states that have agreed to be part of a three-year pilot program to determine if longer school days can improve educational outcomes. This is good, but simply throwing resources at the problem — whether the resources are more money or more time — will not give us all the results we seek. We need to be smarter in how we marshal whatever resources we have.
It needs to start with a wholesale restructuring of the school day and the school year that reflects the kind of society we are now.
John Figliozzi lives in Halfmoon and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.