Extending the school year not ideal

October 14, 2009 — by Alex Ju

President Obama and many others are frustrated with American education, annoyed with how the country’s performance on international standardized tests is always trailing behind other countries. As a result, he recently proposed a radical plan that would increase the length of the school year.

Though this may seem like a nightmare for American students, a longer school year is the reality of life in other countries. On average the United States has a mere 31 school weeks, compared to 38 in Finland, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Finland regularly finishes near the top when it comes to education, ranked second in mathematics, first in science and second in reading by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2006 survey. America’s students, who did not even place in the top 20 for any of the categories, continue to watch from the bleachers.

However, implementation of such a longer school year would likely lead to problems in the school system.

To begin with, American schools produce more well-rounded students than those of Finland. Most Finnish schools do not offer many extracurricular activities, some even lacking sports programs. The reduced amount of physical activity resulting from such an extension of the academic week could have negative impacts on the already questionable health of American youth.

The larger, and arguably more important, dilemma with this proposal lies in the resulting financial strain on schools. Obama has lofty ideals, but he should be concerned about the already-emaciated budgets available to fund such goals. Educating students already costs a fortune, and extending the school year would require paying teachers and staff for the extra time, in addition to the cost of maintaining school buildings. These expenses will undoubtedly burn up money the government does not actually have in these dire economic times.

Breaks are obviously important parts of growing up, too. Camps, parties, summer jobs and summer activities help students develop and improve upon lifelong people skills. Book smarts are important, but if one is unable communicate in the field, then it cannot be put to much use.

Simply increasing the amount of education may not even improve academic performance as desired. Put simply, quality is more important than quantity, and while time is necessary, it alone is insufficient to remedy poor student achievement.

If Obama wants to improve the education system, he should work on improving how current class time is used, and having states set higher standards. For instance, the current California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) only covers up to eighth grade math. With the majority of students surpassing this level, the exam should be more challenging. Raising the requirements would encourage students to work harder, and encourage teachers to use their time more efficiently to cover all the material. These changes can be made easily, and though it would, admittedly, take a chunk out of America’s already thin budget, it would be far less wasteful than what Obama’s original proposition demanded.

According to the Economist, America comes “behind Asian countries that spend less on education but work their children harder.” This is the sort of example Obama should look to for reference, a solution that improves performance without affecting budget or negatively impacting the activities that make American students so well rounded and unique. Although some of the methods of education employed by many Asian countries may be questionable, with long, strenuous hours and extreme pressure, it is possible to take the best of both worlds.

Extending the school year, however, is not the uniform answer to America’s unsatisfactory standardized test scores. Instead of using a blunt club to hack away at America’s educational fallacies, it may be best for Obama to use a more finely shaped instrument to shape the minds of American students so that they can compete with the world’s best and brightest.