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.
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.