Saturday, May 5, 2012

Better Schooling, Not More Schooling

(I wrote this essay two and a half years ago for Junior Year English class, and just recently found it in an old folder. Thought it was worth reposting. Enjoy!)

The educational system in this country has been much decried in recent years. The competency of US students compared to those in other countries has been falling for decades, especially in math and science. These poor results, combined with policies in other countries, have led many to call for more compulsory schooling through a variety of avenues, including mandatory preschool, longer school days, and severely shortened or nonexistent summer vacations. But these measures do not attack the true problems in US schools, they merely extend the length of time these problems persist. Such steps would be ineffective in their stated goal of improving student performance, mentally taxing on students, literally taxing on their parents, and encroaching on the rights of individual school districts to choose for themselves. The United States should not mistake its admirable goal of bettering the educational system with the costly blunder of elongating it.
The proficiency of American students, measured through numerous standards and means, has dwindled for decades. US children are being outscored by those in many weaker nations in numerous subjects, and there are several ideas proposed combat this trend. Many Americans favor a longer school year, a longer school day, mandatory preschool, and increased government funding for college, in an overall larger scholastic path dubbed “cradle to college.” Their cause has been taken up by the new administration, particularly Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who asserts that he favors “longer school days, longer school weeks, [and] longer school years” to ensure our students are not “at a competitive disadvantage” with those of other countries. Duncan and his followers cite nations like Sweden, Belgium, and Denmark, which have longer school days and higher test scores. But studies show that these calls are misguided; there is in fact no correllation between higher test scores and more hours of schooling. Dozens of school districts across the nation have experimented with year-long schedules, and most have noted no improvement in scholastic performance. David Harsanyi of The Denver Post cites, “kids in the U.S. spend more "hours in school (1,146 instructional hours per year) than do kids in the Asian countries that persistently outscore the U.S. on math and science tests—Singapore (903), Taiwan (1,050), Japan (1,005) and Hong Kong (1,013)." Parental emphasis on a child’s education, however, is far greater in these Asian cultures than in most American ones, which explains why “Asian-American students consistently outscore their counterparts in this country, within the same school systems and with the same class times.” Harsanyi states that “the most consistent indicator and predictor of a student’s educational achievement is parental involvement,” and no government mandate or elongated calendar can increase or improve these factors.
While students are succeeding less in this country than in others, they’re certainly not working less, as the above statistics indicate. US children often have hectic schedules chock full of extra-curricular activities and homework, with precious little free time. In high schools especially, these packed schedules combined with the volatile insecurities of adolescence lead to a student body that can often be overworked and overstressed, especially among the most ambitious students with the most challenging and work-requiring courses. Longer school days would leave less time to complete homework, less free time to relieve this stress, and would encroach on already low student sleep hours. More numerous school days would shorten student breaks and extend the schooling curriculum, thus increasing student workload, fatigue and stress levels all the more. The Association for the Study of Higher Education notes that “a field study and laboratory tests support the notion that excessive stress is harmful to a student’s performance,” rendering an increase in these stress levels via an extended school schedule counterproductive.
In addition, this expansion of a key government-funded infrastructure would come at a hefty price. Should a mandatory year-round calendar or shortened summer break be adopted, schools unaccustomed to summer operation would be forced to install costly air conditioning systems. More educational hours would mean the salaries of teachers, administrators, and other school staff would need to be increased for the extra work time. The cost of facilities like electricity and other fixed budget items must also increase, as they must be utilized for more hours than they are today. All these incurred costs would ultimately be paid by taxpayers, people who may not wish for an extended schedule in their own school districts in the first place. Leaving these decisions to individual school districts, with locally elected officials, would more accurately reflect the wishes of taxpayers and the needs of their children than would an overriding federal mandate. Such measures would also hurt the US economically. Shortening or removing students’ summer vacation must also shorten or remove family vacations taking place over the summer, in turn harming the hotel, swimming, airline, leisure, summer camp, and tourism industries. President and CEO of the American Hotel and Lodging Association Joe McInerney fears that “fewer vacation days will dry up the industry's labor source and lead to huge losses of revenue.” Burdening the already struggling economy with such concerns hardly seems wise, especially when the impact on test scores and educational performance is so undetermined.
For these reasons, an extension of the compulsory school schedule would incur many problems. The argument that longer schooling produces smarter kids is far too contested, unfair, and inadequately supported by statistics to justify such difficulties. It is vastly important to secure the future of the nation by effectively reforming our educational system. If the United States is to compete economically and in the labor force with the most powerful nations in the world, it must procure students and test scores competitive with the best educated nations in the world. Initiatives designed to better motivate students, better encourage parents to become involved in their child’s education, and better arm educators with the evolving tools needed to effectively educate must be central in this improvement. New ideas regarding the function and organization of schools are bountiful, and may further the learning environment of US students. But while increasing the quality of US education is necessary and beneficial, increasing the quantity of US education is not.

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