Over the past two decades we have witnessed a flurry of school reform efforts, from No Child Left Behind to the Race to the Top to the Common Core Standards Initiative. I am skeptical that any of these is making a significant improvement in the quality of education in American public schools. The premise of each of these initiatives is that a bureaucratic, top down process with continuous testing of results improves education. This thinking is not limited to K-12 education. It is this same flawed premise that is at the heart of the University of Maine System’s “One University” initiative.
When I think of my own education, what inspired me were interactions with great teachers, whom I remember with gratitude. A good education is not about mastering a homogenized curriculum that can be evaluated with standardized exams. It is about teachers and students exploring together the world of ideas, the tools of communication, the approaches to problem solving, and the skills to find information. Teaching and learning is about good teachers and inspired learners; it is not about educational bureaucrats, educational consultants, standardized test designers, and curriculum coordinators.
So for me, school reform should be about giving students more time with dedicated teachers held to the highest standards. More time will lead to broader and deeper learning. My modest proposal for school reform is to institute a longer school day and a longer school year. I can imagine a school year that has four 11 week terms, each separated by a two week break. Teachers would work and be paid like other valued professionals in our society and have four weeks of vacation a year. This higher pay would reflect the value we should place on teachers in this society. That higher pay would also attract more talented people to the profession and we could demand more excellence from our teachers.
This is essentially year-round school to replace the current school calendar which was designed to accommodate the child labor needs of the 19th Century agricultural economy. Year-round school, without the need to teach to the test, would allow a more relaxed pace for deeper and broader learning. It would use the physical plant of our public education system more efficiently. It would encourage students to master skills more fully by being able to literally spend more time on task. Malcolm Gladwell reminds us in his book Outliers of the power of the ten thousand hour rule. Mastery — in this case mastery of communication, quantitative, and critical thinking skills — comes from time on task.
Obviously year-round school would cost more than our current system, but to have a better educated society in the future seems to me worth it. Some of the increased costs would come from savings generated by eliminating the educational bureaucrats in Augusta and Washington, the educational consultants designing homogenized curricula, and other consultants designing standardized tests to evaluate students’ conformity to the expectations of the designers. The rest of the costs are an investment in our future.
When it comes to reforming education, I will put my money on the time that students spend with excellent teachers.