THE SCHOOL YARD – Is this a holiday? The reason I am asking is that the local school yard is empty. No teachers’ Lamborghinis in the parking lot, no Harleys in the bike rack and no trash blowing about that didn’t make into the dumpsters for recycling. So it must a school holiday. Maybe it’s Justin Breiber’s birthday or the school district simply ran out of money or it’s Take Your Teacher on a Tryst Day. I’ve got it. The French class has taken over the school, and that might help Texas.
Background: French elementary students go to school four days a week — no classes on Wednesdays. They have about two hours each day for lunch, and they have more vacation time than their counterparts almost anywhere in the First World. This is typical in a nation where the students’ parents work 35 hours per week and get six weeks vacation as dictated by law. But the school week may become longer because France’s new president, Francois Hollande, wants to change what the French call their “scholastic rhythms.” He proposes ending the Wednesdays off while shortening the hours the kids are in class. “France has the shortest school year and the longest day,” Hollande said.
He has quite a battle on his hands as French primary students have had Wednesdays off since the 19th century. It was a government concession to the Catholic Church, which wanted children to study the catechism on their weekday off. That’s gone by the wayside and in today’s secular France. Wednesdays are for sports, music, sipping wine and making “Yankee Go Home” banners.
The story gets a little more complicated since, despite those long summer vacations and short school weeks, French elementary school students actually spend more hours per year in school than average – 847 hours a year compared with 774 among other industrialized nations. The French elementary school day begins around 8:30 and ends at 4:30 p.m. even for the youngest.
Our story now switches to Washington where U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently told a Congressional hearing: “Our students today are competing against children in India and China. Those students are going to school 25 to 30 percent longer than we are. Our students, I think, are at a competitive disadvantage. I think we’re doing them a disservice.” Duncan didn’t mention the French because their students rank below most of their European neighbors and the U.S. in results on international tests.
Is the Education Secretary right? Probably not, but his gloom gets our attention. At least two studies by international educational groups found that Indian and Chinese students spend about the same time in class as do U.S. students, in some cases, even less. We have 50 states each with its own school schedules which also vary according to the grades. So it is tough to generalize. However, time requirements typically do not vary dramatically among the states. Most require between 175 and 180 days of school and/or between 900 and 1,000 hours of instructional time per year, again, depending on the grade level.
But we can compare some stats. Texas, which consistently ranks at or near the very bottom among the states in everything from SAT scores to teachers’ pay (we are first, however, in high school football), requires school districts to provide at least 180 days of instruction with 1,260 hours. However, some districts have a waiver from the Commissioner of Education allowing them to substitute a few of those days for teacher professional development days. (Both my mother and wife were school teachers, and found those days mostly a waste of time.) Today teachers spend their development days developing resumes since they are about to be laid off.
During the school year we have spring breaks and fall breaks. Many districts now take off all of Thanksgiving week but return to class in time for the Christmas/holiday vacation that extends past the New Year’s break. The growing number of charter schools, voucher programs and home schooling explains some of our dreadful rankings. Then we have the added benefit of Texas’ State Board of Education, which thinks global warming is a round microwave and condominiums should not be given to teenagers. That board can take credit for much of our sterling reputation among the nation’s educators. The board picks textbooks and sets policy for our 4,329,841 public school students in 8,317 schools, most of which are older than Texas’ taxpayer-sponsored billion dollar professional sports stadiums – the schools, not the students.
Unlike in some cities, our 1,265 districts are independent of municipal governments – the mayor doesn’t hire and fire the teachers, just the coach. Being independent school districts, they are called just that, shortened to ISD. They can, and often do, cross city limits and county lines. They raise their own taxes and can use eminent domain. The lone exception to these ISDs is the Stafford Municipal School District, just southwest of Houston. It serves all of the city of Stafford, hence the “municipal.”
The state’s largest school district, with 279 schools, is the Houston ISD teaching (we hope) 203,066 students. The smallest is the Divide ISD in western Kerr County, which consists of one lone elementary school with 26 students. The facility is one of the few remaining one-room school houses which once dotted America. But that ISD must be on to something – it is considered one of the best districts in Texas and is rated “exemplary” by the Texas Education Agency.
This brings us to our question of whether Texas should adopt the French or the Chinese and Indian educational schedules. I say we don’t change anything. It ain’t broke. Just look at how well our star students are performing – winning all sorts of academic prizes, blowing out the tests, chalking up the honors. Of course, most of those star students are Chinese or Indian kids. There is also the question of why this school is closed. Oh, it’s Saturday.
Ashby teaches at email@example.com