About Time

The best way to improve American education would be to move to metric time. If we divide the day into 100 ‘hours’ of 14.4 minutes, we can claim that our children attend school nearly 5000 hours a year – more than China, Japan and Korea combined.

Okay, nobody will buy that.

The current discussion about this country’s dismal education system, however, is all about time. How much time — days, hours — should our children be spending in school? More is always better, right?

Students in Japan attend school 240 days a year; in South Korea, it’s 220. In the US, it’s only 180. Since those countries regularly best us academically, the solution seems obvious: keep kids in school for more days, or make the days longer.

Some states have eliminated snow days in order to force districts to make up these ‘free’ days. My district gets only 3 snow days this year, where last year we had 5. In most years, we use up those days, and in a few years, we’ve had to make up a day or two because we’ve used up our allowance. Rural districts have ten or more snow days a year; unless they use up spring break and a few Saturdays, they’ll be in school until nearly the end of June. In other words, don’t plan your vacation yet.

I’m not so sure that keeping kids in school five more days in June would replace the time we would have spent in the classroom in January or February. Schools make calendars, and every kid knows when the last day of school is. If two or three ‘make-up’ days are tacked on after that day, more education is not necessarily going to happen.

Time is not ‘fungible,’ as Aaron Schwarz points out. If I had an extra two hours a day, I might be able to write a novel, but time alone is no guarantee that it would happen. Certainly more time would help, but writing requires many things besides time – ideas, discipline, and the elusive muse. Sitting at the computer for two hours is not writing.

Sitting in a classroom for several more days is not educating kids, even if teachers continue to do all the things they do. Better education in this country will require a cultural shift. In the countries that rank ahead of us, education is a much higher priority. Parents sacrifice chunks of income to pay for tutoring, and students work their butts off because they know that dropping out is not an option. The government gives schools the money to do what they need to do. And children are brought up differently; they learn at an early age to sit quietly and listen to adults. I’m not saying this is always a good thing, but it does allow for different, more efficient methods of instruction to be used

We do a lot of things in the name of educating our kids that are the equivalent of making hours metric. It looks like we’re doing more, but actually we’re doing the same things and calling them something different. We call it Small Schools or Race to the Top or No Child Left Behind. But we’re operating under the same old assumptions: everyone can (and should) go to college, passing tests means that kids have been educated, and they won’t learn unless they’re being entertained.

These assumptions raise questions that no one is answering: What is the value of a college education for the person who cuts my hair or fixes my car? Some kids don’t want or need a college degree. Should they be forced into a college prep track, just in case? Can learning be quantified? What should we measure? Who decides what quantities are acceptable? And why can’t we let kids get bored sometimes? Creativity is often a by-product of boredom.

Ultimately, things like class size, teacher experience or salaries, or even the money we spend on technology — none of these things matter if our culture does not change.

If we really valued education, everything would change. Kids wouldn’t get a slap on the wrist for disrespecting teachers, and would do their homework because they understood the value of hard work. Parents would not show up at school and yell about their kid’s right to text in class, or blame teachers when their kid cuts class. Teachers would not pass students just for being “good kids” or “trying hard.” We’d be allowed to track kids by interest and ability instead of assuming that everyone is going to college. And taxpayers would understand that educating children is not just the responsibility of parents; well-educated citizens make life better for all of us.

Such an ideal world has probably never existed (even in China or South Korea), but we could come closer. I believe that this country’s education system is not far from the beginning of a revolution. I plan to be around to see it; I’m still about half a million hours from retirement, metrically speaking.

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