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Tighter school days might offset shorter school year

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Nov. 16, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
November 16, 2011 4:18 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

How bad do the state’s looming budget cuts look? So bad that many Washington school superintendents – people who understand the connection between classroom time and learning – are urging a shorter school year.

A terrible idea on the face of it. But it may be less terrible than what it might avert: A drastic cut to the levy equalization money that helps children in property-poor school districts get an education comparable to what their peers get in wealthier districts.

To help close a $2 billion revenue shortfall, the governor has proposed to cut levy equalization by half. This would strip millions from Tacoma, Puyallup, University Place and other districts with lean tax bases. Well-off districts – think Seattle, Mercer Island and Edmonds – wouldn’t be touched.

A coalition of 29 Puget Sound superintendents say that a shorter school year for all districts – 175 instead of 180 days – would spread the cuts more fairly. The idea is to squeeze schools equally across the state rather than heap the pain on the districts that can least afford it.

If lawmakers are forced to choose between equalization and a shorter school year, equalization should not be sacrificed. Time spent in the classroom does matter.

But the Legislature must look hard for ways to save both. Countries with successful education systems have figured this out. The Economist in 2009 pointed out that America’s 180-day school year is already a slacker’s schedule:
“German children spend 20 more days in school … and South Koreans over a month more. Over 12 years, a 15-day deficit means American children lose out on 180 days of school, equivalent to an entire year.”

When children spend more time in class, they tend to learn more. Duh. Asian and European students who put in long days and long years at school tend to trounce Americans in math and science. They are America’s future competition, and they’re doing a lot more sweating in their workouts.

Still, there is that missing $2 billion, which can’t all be found outside the K-12 system.

Lawmakers and the education establishment might do well by looking inside the school year to squeeze more instruction time out of limited educational dollars.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal last year, Chester Finn Jr. – a former assistant secretary of the Department of Education – noted that much of the American school year winds up spent on something other than teaching and learning:

“Our deeper problem is the enormous amount of time that typical American schools spend on gym, recess, lunch, assembly, changing classes, homeroom, lining up to go to the art room, looking at movies, writing down homework assignments, quieting the classroom, celebrating this or that holiday, and other pursuits.

“It’s not all wasted time, but neither are those minutes spent in ways that boost test scores, enhance college-readiness or deepen pupils’ understanding of literature, geography or algebra.”

Devote more of the school day to academics. That might be a radical idea in some districts, but these are radical times.

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