Zaino: Get serious about extending the school year
Galleries2012 Valedictorians in the Hudson Valley
Early August not only marks the height of the lazy, hazy days of summer, but for parents it means another four weeks until the kids go back to school.
If that seems like a long time, it is.
Westchester public school children generally celebrate their last day of school the third week of June and don't go back until after Labor Day.
And as children get older, they are often out of school even earlier. My eighth grader had his last full day of class on June 9, followed by two weeks of exams. During this time, he was allowed in school only for his five, two-hour exams. A total of 10 hours between June 10 and his "last day," June 20. By the time September rolls around, it will have been more than 13 weeks -- a quarter of the year -- since my children were in school full-time.
There should be time during the summer for children and teachers to take a break. Vacations, camp and unscheduled downtime are important for kids. Teachers need both time off and time for professional development. But 13 weeks is too long. Not only is it bad for working parents, who must juggle work and child care arrangements, it's bad for our children and community. This schedule may have made sense when we were a largely agrarian society, but it ceased being necessary many decades ago. Yet the structure of an American school year has remained largely unchanged -- and unchallenged.
Fiscal considerations are one reason for this. At a time when school districts across the nation are having trouble staying afloat, the thought of keeping schools open more raises serious questions: How would the districts pay for faculty and staff to work longer? Could they afford the cost of transportation, food, air-conditioning, supplies, extracurricular activities, and maintenance, among many other things?
But while it would be expensive to keep the schools open 11 months or more, closing them simply transfers the costs. A recent survey by American Express, shows that American families spend $16.1 billion on summer child care; that's an average of $601 per child on camps, baby sitters and the like. In our part of the country, of course, the costs are higher. Consider the price of a few of the most popular day camps in Westchester. Most are close to $3,000 per child for one and a half to two months, not including transportation. For sleep-away camps, the cost can double.
Some families can afford to take advantage of these pricey options, but many cannot. Instead, many working-class parents must make difficult choices -- leave children home alone, ask for help from family and friends, or search for subsidized summer options, many of which have been cut in this difficult economy.
And cost is not the only issue. At a time when the American educational system is under well-deserved scrutiny (think "Waiting for Superman," "The Lottery," and "American Teacher") does it make sense to have our children in school for just 180 days per year? When American school children are scoring lower on standardized tests than their counterparts in industrialized nations, isn't it time we consider whether our kids should be in school for longer than just half the year?
More than 30 of the 43 countries examined in a 2000 UNESCO study require children to be in school longer than 180 days. Some of the nations whose kids score highest on exams -- Germany, Japan and South Korea, for instance -- average more than 220 days of school per year. The fact that these kids are in school a month longer than the typical American child may be one factor accounting the test-score differences -- much has been written about the "summer slide" in academic skills.
The kids who suffer most from our failure to adjust to life in the 21st century aren't the offspring of the affluent. They're the children of the working poor who cannot afford expensive summer experiences. In the very best cases, these students are left in circumstances that do little to help prepare them for future success; in the worst cases they are left in unsafe or dangerous conditions.
While a longer school year is not a panacea, it may help account not just for our nation's comparatively lower test scores but the frightening achievement gap between lower and upper-income children; a divide that follows these kids and their families for generations and that burdens not just them, but the nation as a whole.
There are no easy answers to the enormous educational challenges we face, but at the very least it's time we stop accepting as sacrosanct a practice from a bygone era. Let's question the wisdom of a 180-day school calendar and ask ourselves if it's in the best of interests of our children and the future of our community.
Jeanne Zaino is interim dean of the School of Arts & Science and a professor of Political Science at Iona College.