Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Too much time in school an economic waste

This was written by Zander Sherman who is the author of The Curiosity of School.

by Zander Sherman

Last week, as Alberta’s students headed back to school, some were probably wishing they’d had a longer summer holiday.

Easily overshadowed by other issues, the question of our academic calendar and its number of vacation days has long troubled educators. Those who say we should spend more time in school often suggest cutting into the summer break, when kids were once needed to help hay the fields. Because we no longer live in farming times, the tradition is irrelevant. If such reasoning is meant to sustain an argument, it might be pointed out that what we call school today was also invented during the same timeframe—and no one is arguing the irrelevance of it.

While it still eludes Alberta, all-day kindergarten has been adopted to Ontario’s educational legislation, with similar initiatives gaining momentum in other parts of the world. In the US, extended learning has become a central tenet of the charter school movement. In the UK, politicians are campaigning on a proposal that would legally force public schools to provide 45 hours of education a week for 45 weeks. Lengthening school days and cutting holidays is said to be “the perfect election promise.”

Proponents argue that their plan would create more “successful” students. To find out whether this is true, let us first agree that “educational success” is the reason we go to school. Sadly, the phrase “educational success” has come to be defined by a third party. The OECD is a global economic organization that administers PISA, the standardized test taken by all 15-year-olds. Because of the correlation between PISA results and a nation’s gross domestic product, PISA is academia’s raison d’être: If students do well on the test, it means their country is doing well financially. (This is why governments obsess over test results. They indicate a country's rank on the global stage.)

If educational success is the reason we go to school, it will be surprising to many that more time in school does not necessarily lead to it. While there is correlation between PISA outcomes and GDP, there is little correlation between PISA outcomes and the number of hours we spend in school. Consider, for instance, how Canada spends roughly the same number of hours in a classroom as the US, but as a whole does a lot better on PISA than they do. China and Japan spend about the same amount of time in school and come out at or near the top, while India also spends approximately the same number of hours in school and comes out at or near the bottom.

Clearly, instructional time does not lead to better PISA outcomes.

If more classroom hours have little to do with educational success, what does? School’s terrible secret is that students’ “success” is determined long before they enter a classroom. Wealth is the single greatest predictor of academic grades, and therefore of students’ future earning potential. This is true in many ways. Wealthy families have more resources, and can afford private tutors and expensive test prep courses. Wealthy parents have more time to spend with their children, and so engage them more. Poor families view post-secondary education as unattainable. Poor parents are often under chronic stress, which in turn affects their children.

If more time in school doesn’t equal educational success, it only makes sense that we should spend less time in it. It is a principle of economics after all that where there is no benefit to a proposal, it is wasteful to continue using it. The province of Alberta’s education budget is $7 billion per annum. Exams, snow days, and PD days notwithstanding, Albertans spend about 190 days in school. That’s about $37 million a day. For cost reasons alone, school days are precious and not to be wasted. (And that doesn’t include other reasons to avoid over-schooling such as student stress, teacher attrition rates, and the growing number of pediatricians who say that the school day begins too early in the morning—all problems that could be avoided with a shorter school year.)

To those who would shorten our summer holiday, let this be among the first lessons of the year: It doesn’t matter how many hours you spend behind a desk, merely how rich you are. There can be no denying that over-schooling is an economic waste. With that in mind, more vacation hours would solve the problem of spending too much time in school.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with the fact stated that more hours in school does not create "educational success". You have your students who want to learn and those who don't. The ones who want to learn are going to use the time given to them to do so. While the ones who do not care, well, you're lucky if they even show up. I do disagree with it being all about the money though. Sure, children who come from families with money can afford to pay the extra needed to give their children a great education. It still comes down the want of the child to learn. However, shortening holiday time will not solve the main issue here, being U.S. students low scores. And to solving that problem I have no answer. I did enjoy reading this post though!


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