Arne’s Half-Baked Plan for Fixing Schools. . .

David Warlick—one of my favorite thinkers on the changing nature of education—was all over Arne Duncan's announcement this week that American students need to spend more time in schools.  In fact, Warlick goes as far as to argue that more time in school is equivalent to the pointless extension of a prison sentence.


Warlick writes:

You’re not going to win the blue ribbon at the county fair by leaving your apple pie in the oven longer.  And secondly, why not grow oranges instead.  Doesn’t a global market place need diversity of talents and skills — not everyone trying to best each other on the same narrow array of standards.

But we’re not talking about fruit are we?  We’re talking about our children. ..and let’s face it, we’re talking about nothing less than institutionalizing “child labor” to satisfy a failed belief that higher standardized test scores will reliably lead to a stronger economy, more prosperous citizens, and a vibrant democracy. 

What it leads to is boredom, collapsing morale among our best teachers, children without passion, children dropping out, and a growing and prospering testing industry."

Nancy Flanagan—my official Ed Policy Sensei—wasn't as skeptical of Duncan's plan as Warlick.  In fact, a mountain of statistical evidence seemed to convince Nancy that Duncan may just be on to something.

 In a conversation that we had with other Teacher Leaders Network members, Nancy wrote:

The (belabored) point being: Arne might not be wrong here. (I think he's wrong in lots of other places–especially the $16 billion for data analysis systems so we can finally, finally tie each student's test score to the person directly responsible for growth.) (**snark alert**) But time in school–well, hey. Let's look at the (ahem) data.

The top scoring nations in international tests average 222 days per year in school, to our 180. While their kids are sometimes in school for fewer hours per day, especially at the secondary level, they are academically focused nearly year-round. Nearly every day, there is contact with ideas, problems, reading, content, academic structures…

Warlick is right, however, when he says that if American school is just more of the same, it won't work to add another 800 hours of instruction annually (the difference between the U.S. and Korea). Another 800 hours of worksheets, questions at the end of the chapter, doing the even AND the odd problems on page 125, and finding the topic sentence? No.

So here's my question:  Does anyone REALLY believe that extra time will lead to anything BUT additional mind-numbing madness for our kids?

I don't—-primarily because policymakers with little real understanding of what "meaningful teaching and learning experiences" look like will still be in charge, and those guys get re-elected every few years.  All that they seem to care about is being able to brag at the polls about the "remarkable gains" that students have made during their tenure—-which becomes "proof" that they've "held schools accountable for performance."

(Can you tell that I hate buzzwords?)

And Duncan only feeds into this continued belief when he mixes in conversations about merit pay and $16 billion dollar systems for figuring out the "measurable impact" that individual teachers have on individual students. 

Despite what thousands of Barack's bumper stickers will tell ya, there's no real effort here to change the kinds of teaching and learning experiences that our students are exposed to in their seemingly never-ending school careers.  Instead, there's a false confidence in the flawed idea that the only thing broken in our educational system is the amount of time that our kids sit in classrooms. 

What bothers me the most is that I have no idea how we can avoid the inevitable angst that Duncan's underinformed—-not to mention rushed and reactionary—-policies are going to cause without serious efforts to change the status quo in schools. 

Whose job is it to fix the mess we're about to step into?

Is this a crusade that I should take on as a classroom teacher? While I probably know more about the impact that current educational policies have had on teaching and learning in the American classroom than most other stakeholders, I sure don’t feel like my ideas are going to be “heard” or “valued.”

(And besides, whose going to pay for my sub while I'm waving the red flags?)

Should we whip our parents into an Anti-Arne frenzy?  While they may not have a ton of technical knowledge about exactly what good teaching and learning should look like—-and while the simple comparisons that Duncan and the Gang are spinning probably make a ton of sense when you take them for face value—it would be hard for elected officials to ignore an army of angry voters, don't you think?

Or are policymakers are only hope? While they have the organizational power to make any changes a reality, they don’t seem to have a ton of motivation to up-end the ol' apple cart.  After all, there's tons of "empirical evidence" suggesting that more time means more learning.  Seems like a politically safe and ridiculously easy logical decision taken in the best interest of children, then, doesn't it? 

What's really sad is that there is such a sense of hoplessness, confusion, disagreement and mystery around education—-including in my own muddled mind—-that I'd bet none of these groups will ever take coordinated action to move forward. 

Instead—in the course of spending billions of dollars in a few short months—–we'll shout and holler at each other, advocating for our own positions while shooting down anything pointing in a different direction.  The conversation around change will remain competitive rather than open and collaborative.

Which can mean only one thing:  We're completely screwed.

18 thoughts on “Arne’s Half-Baked Plan for Fixing Schools. . .

  1. Patrick

    The truth is, as many have written, what works is more important than time. It is not time that is the issue, it is engagement. How hard is that? Evidently, very…….

  2. KB

    The achievements of other nations (Japan, Korea, etc) were mentioned above. It was stated that they have more time in the classroom. However, the teachers in these countries also only teach 2 classes a day and have the rest of the time as structured collaboration with other teachers. Think of the amazing things teachers could do in the classroom with all this extra time!
    I also completely agree with the comment about needing a sec of ed who has been a teacher. If you look at Arne Duncan’s life, the main reason he is where he is, is because of who he was friends with growing up. Yes, he is very interested in education and did some good things in Chicago, but he does not know the depths of the issues until he has spent time teaching.

  3. Gregory Louie

    Chris Christensen has been making a case that disruptive innovations occur outside the mainstream. His latest work, Disrupting Class, predicts the fall of traditional state-run schools. If he is right, the arguments presented here will become moot. Learners in the near future will take their learning into their own hands with access resources online 24/7.
    With that in mind, my recent work as an educator is to build a website that provides learners with a variety of multimedia resources.
    When mature, these resources will be organized into learning progressions for each area of expertise.
    My first goal is to build one for the molecular basis of life.
    I am collecting multimedia, videos, animations, virtual labs and molecular dynamics simulation for this purpose.
    If you are a biology teacher. Please join the effort. You’ll find our collection at the Biotechnology and Scientific Visualization Group on the Synapse Ning.
    Here’s the link:

  4. sweber

    As we enter the final nine weeks of the school year, it may not be a good time to discuss extending the school year.
    This evening, I started reading a new ASCD book written by Douglas Reeves. He reminded readers that at one point, educators refused to eliminate corporal punishment because the community norms were to have corporal punishment.
    In the book titled, On Common Ground, Michael Fullan reminds educators, “Each of us is the system.” Regardless of changes created by state or federal government, true change is created by creative teachers and administrators within each school.
    Fenwick English wrote, each district should strive to become a school system, rather than the traditional system of schools.
    Teachers are the true change agents in schools. Once teachers decide what is good for students and they begin working as a unified team, their collective efforts can impact an entire community.
    Do I believe that changing the calendar will impact student achievement? No. I have always hoped for the day where the school calendar would include an additional month for teachers. This would include additional pay (which cannot possibly hurt in today’s economy) and it would include more time for teachers to work in collaborative teams. Collaborative team time would include data analysis, developing and revising curriculum, developing and revising common formative assessments, sharing teaching strategies, developing assignments which support 21st Century Learning goals, etc. If teachers are given additional time to have purposeful conversations and to align the curriculum, vertically and horizontally, then I believe student results will improve. Grant Wiggins often says, educators “teach, test, and hope for the best.” Adding additional days to the traditional school year may increase teaching, testing and hoping. I am for adding days if teachers are given time to reflect and improve curriculum and instruction.
    For additional information on the new definition of professional development, visit the National Staff Development Council website and view their new online videos. In my opinion, this type of job-embedded professional development would improve teaching and learning.

  5. Bob Heiny

    Oh my, Mr. Bill.
    I don’t see any acknowledgment in your post or comments by others that the seat of the problem Arnie and the Federal ed administration are trying to handle begins and ends with what teachers do in classrooms.
    What we do is all we have control over.
    Come on, Teacher Leaders. 🙂 Focus. Yes?
    What should teachers do differently today in each of our classrooms, given Arnie’s proposal of a way to increase student learning?
    What can we do to increase learning now with what we have, and thus make Arnie’s proposal moot?

  6. K. Borden

    Two-year looping of students with the same teacher could be great for the students who happen upon a great teacher. Those who happen upon mediocrity or worse would be harmed greatly. Having lived the devastation wrought by one particular year in our experience, I couldn’t support it. The risks outweigh the rewards.
    Mandatory year-round schools are being attempted in the community Mr. Ferriter teaches in and I live in and the answers just are not easy. Our community converted many schools to mandatory multi-track year-rounds beginning in the 07-08 year. Voluntary year round had been very popular in the system, with applications exceeding seats year after year.
    The mandatory conversions have simply not met with the same public support and a mere two years later, schools are being converted back to the traditional calendar, tracks are collapsing and the efficiencies promised are not proving true. New teachers hired to fill the spots are facing lay-offs or reassignments.
    Our district features terribly overcrowded traditional calendar schools with mandatory year-rounds collapsing tracks due to underutilization and the increased cost of operatomg them inefficiently being paid in tough economic times. A lawsuit required the system to provide parents an opt out option of the mandatory year-rounds. So many F&R families did so it hurt the diversity assignment program the system prided itself on having.
    Families struggle where their children are on different schedules and they can’t find time other than the Christmas break to be together. The community businesses and services stepped up with many track out camps and options to deal with the issues raised by the varying track out schedules, but for many families it is not workable. High schools don’t operate on the year round schedules, leaving many families with all sorts of conflicts.
    Savvy parents with flexible schedules have looked at what tracks preferred teachers selected and opt for those. When it all started, some parents thought they had it figured out opting for the less popular calendars so that their children would be in smaller classes. The first year it worked. Then came the program cuts and track collapses. See, with multi-track year-round not every track can offer the same electives, AG programs….and retain the marketed cost efficiencies.
    I too saw benefits to year-round and had the opportunity been there when my daughter started we would have taken it. But those opportunities and advantages only emerge for voluntary systems. The voluntary system here, while popular enough to have applications exceed seats, were not popular with lower income families. Thus, each year the voluntary year round schools operated well under capacity, with family applications denied because they were the wrong demographics.

  7. N. Garone

    When are we going to start comparing apples with apples. We cannot start comparing ourselves to overseas’ school models-American School are not set up the same. Many of these schools go six days a week. An extra activities ( sports) are done as clubs after school and in many of the countries, students are funneled into certain special interest schools by high school. Some countries even divert their lower achievers to technical schools the second year of high school. They do not educate everyone. If we are going to compare–let’s not pick and choose.

  8. J.M. Holland

    Ariel I had the same experience with my group of preschoolers. In fact I am hoping to do it again next year. It was hard in different ways than a 1 year cycle is. But, there is no comparing the achievement in a 2 year cycle.

  9. Claus

    I strikes me that many of the people who advocate for more time in school also champion better use of that time. In many cases, they assume that more time in school would principally benefit low-income students–assuming, again, that we use the time well. (And there’s the rub.)
    Secretary Duncan has also called for schools to stay open longer so that they can serve as centers of community, offering enrichment opportunities to students and parents, on-site health care, English language help for non-native parents, etc.
    Of course, we often run into trouble when complex policy ideas are boiled down to simple miracle-cure prescriptions.

  10. Dan Callahan

    At 800 additional hours of school time, as Flanagan states, we’re looking at an approximately 60% increase in school time. I have a hard time believing there’s any sort of political will to foot the increased costs that would come with that…as The Science Goddess says, there’s a lot of factors that would need to be resolved, not the least of which would include significant teacher salary increases, increased heating/air conditioning bills, paying for lunches for more of the year, covering increased cleaning costs, etc, etc.
    Personally, I’m a big fan of the concept of year round schooling, for the reasons enumerated above by others, but also because it would provide more frequent breaks for the kind of processing Warlick and similar call for.

  11. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter asked:
    “So here’s my question: Does anyone REALLY believe that extra time will lead to anything BUT additional mind-numbing madness for our kids?”
    I do (for some students). Mind-numbing supervised time would be better than unsupervised time away from “school” for some. The “anything but” would include access to adults, books, technology, basic supplies and a one more meal a week than they would otherwise receive. On the other hand, some students would lose opportunities one more day and month a year.
    Do you have students who with one more day a week, one more month a year you could make a difference? Do you have students who with one more day a week and month a year in school they would lose opportunities they have away from school that you know benefit them as learners?

  12. KJ

    When will we have a Sec of Ed who has been a lifelong teacher, with education degrees and a career as a classroom teacher? I wikipedia-ed the list of Secs of Ed and only found one, the very first one, who was actually a teacher with education degrees. He also helped author “A Nation at Risk”, which we are still living under today. I suppose that this is the biggest beef I have. WHY DO WE KEEP PUTTING PEOPLE WHO AREN’T TEACHERS TO PRESIDE OVER THE U.S. EDUCATION DEPARTMENT?!?! How does that even make sense?

  13. Ariel Sacks

    John, though I love summer, I might agree with you about the year round schedule, and getting rid of the summer slump. I also think we should consider having teachers loop with the same students for two years, so we don’t have to spend the first part of the year getting to know each other, assessing, etc. The continuity is powerful. My highest student test results ever were from entire classes of students in the second year of two year looping cycles. (blogged about it this week). That wouldn’t cost any money or extra time either.

  14. J.M. Holland

    Bill I am thinking that with added accountability, test prep, standardized testing, (I individually test in pre-k which accounts for about 22 hours of lost teaching time 3 times a year. Plus an additional 22 in the beginning of the year for the developmental testing.) Duncan is just making up for the lost time from the testing path we are already on. I say we delete some tests, teach more, and save money. I am almost on the year round wagon with you. Not quite yet but that would probably produce the same gains as adding time per year. If we lose the summer slump we could have more retention. Especially in early grades. I am not against progress just one step at a time. Lets try year around before we add 800 more hours to make up for lost teaching time.

  15. Tracy Rosen

    Yeah, more time in school can be a good thing. But it has to be more time with teachers who care. More time doing hands on activities, more time talking, more time taking responsibility for your learning. More time just for the sake of more time, and more time that is filled with more of the stuff that isn’t working will be a waste of time.

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