Tuesday, August 01, 2006

All Summer in a Day

Yesterday, one of the metro counties--Rockdale, I believe, although I'm not sure--started school. Today, Cherokee County, which is just up the road from Dr. No's, begins classes. And as a student for 17 years and a teacher for 25+, I find myself thinking that there's something wrong there...

My birthday is in late August--late enough, in fact, that I remember being in school on my birthday more than once. However, in the egocentrism that comes with youth, I always based my worldview around me--and my birthday was a sort of marker. During my years as a student, school never started any earlier than the week of my birthday; if August 26th was a Tuesday or a Wednesday, we might start school on that Monday, but never any earlier.

Teachers, of course, usually start a week earlier than students, so I generally viewed mid-August as the appropriate starting time for teachers. Beginning more than a decade ago, though, school systems began pushing for a mid-August start for students--and now, some are going for an early August start.

They tout the benefits of a "balanced school year," which means a very short summer break with more time off scheduled during the year. I've yet to see any convincing evidence of an advantage to that, however. It's primarily a convenience thing--they want to be able to reshape the calendar to wrap up the first semester before Christmas holidays, and an early August start facilitates that. While this is convenient, I never saw any sign in my years of teaching that it did anything to improve student final exam performance or to enhance the educational process; most teachers had very skillfully designed their curriculum to allow for the holiday break. Besides, if a holiday break is so devastating to student performance, then why are more of them scattered throughout the year somehow preferable? (And I don't for a moment accept the argument that students forget the material in two weeks; long-term memory doesn't work that way.)

Our society continues to embrace the idea of a summer vacation at the same time that school systems attempt to shun it. It's an odd dichotomy, but not really surprising--for the quarter of a century that I taught, it seemed that school systems were administratively operating at odds with the society they supposedly served.

And I can tell you, having worked as a cog in the educational machine that is dedicated to the premise of minimum spending in schools and maximum spending elsewhere (oh, the stories I could tell you...), that school system air conditioning routinely fails to operate properly for the first couple of weeks of school. Don't know why that is; stop by the school during the summer and you'll find the A/C working just fine, but once school starts back, there must be a bizarro maintenance team that removes vital parts from the A/C system. I've made way too many futile attempts to teach students in an 85°-90° clasroom filled with miserable, surly students while the county office acted like it was an imposition to expect them to actually do something about it. So now we're going to start school even earlier, so that students are in the building during the hottest part of the year.... great planning. (And of course, there's no A/C on a school bus around here, so imagine how pleasant the ride home will be!...)

Thankfully, Cobb County (my home county, where I taught from 1980 until March 31st, 2000) has backed off from the move towards a "balanced calendar," but I'm not wholly convinced that's due to any particular wisdom; instead, our most recent board has made so many foolish decisions in the past year that something as humble as a calendar was below the radar for them. Even so, they had a few squabbles with parents whenever the "balanced calendar" system came up for discussion—but they were too busy trying to throw away $100+ million on a laptop-computer-for-every-student program to put up much of a fight.

It's very possible that sooner or later the "balanced calendar" proponents will succeed in pushing through the idea, but I hope not. We've hindered the education of way too many students over the decades by embracing short-sighted "change for the sake of change--or even worse, for the sake of administrative offices" decisions, and I'm convinced this will be another one of them.

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