In recent columns, I have argued that we need to pay teachers more; find ways to cut fiscal waste in our educational system; and take radical steps to eliminate the waste of time and resources resulting from the factory model of secondary education our great-grandparents borrowed from Bismarck’s Prussia.
There are many ways of taking action to meet these goals, but we could make a start at achieving all three goals by making better educational use of the three months of summer.
Almost everyone knows that the traditional summer school vacation didn’t start out as a way of giving kids “time off.” It’s an artifact left over from an era during which they were needed to help out on the farm.
These days, few kids need their summers off to pick potato bugs or top tobacco plants. About the best anyone can say on behalf of the traditional summer vacation is that teachers and students need a break, and that the tourist industry needs families to take summer vacations.
Which are decent enough arguments, but hardly conclusive when you consider that our kids are falling behind students in other advanced societies, or when you consider the absolute waste involved in having those huge school buildings sit empty for more than two months of every year.
There are many arguments in favor of keeping schools open in the summer. Some involve switching to a year-round school calendar, an idea worth considering. A year-round school calendar, with students enjoying short breaks four times a year instead of one long vacation, would greatly reduce the amount of knowledge lost over the long summer holidays. It could also significantly reduce teacher burnout.
In fiscal terms, a year-round calendar could enable a building to accommodate up to one-third more students, thus saving millions in new school construction costs.
But even without eliminating the summer vacation, there is much to be said for making better use of summers. While we study calendar reform, there’s nothing to prevent adopting a much more constructive policy regarding summer school.
For example, one of the greatest weaknesses in American education is the abysmal job we do in preparing our kids in foreign languages. There are, to be sure, many remarkable teachers in our foreign language programs. And everyone knows some outstanding student who gained fluency in high school, and went on to achieve great things overseas.
But these exceptions don’t change the fact that most of our high school graduates, after three or more years of a foreign language, would be hard-pressed to carry on an ordinary conversation with a native speaker, much less do business, or conduct diplomacy, or coordinate with allied troops.
Someday, we’ll get serious about teaching languages and start our kids in elementary school. By the time they reach middle school, they’ll be taking entire subject-matter courses in their chosen language. But that’s the future. We’re a long time from making changes on that level, and the kids now in middle and high school won’t benefit from long-term reforms.
What would help – right now – would be to start offering the second year of foreign languages in summer school. Today, most first-year language students spend the summer forgetting much of what they’ve learned, and the first month or two of the fall reviewing the past year’s work. A six-week summer program, with 4.5 hours of instruction daily, could earn them credit for the second year of a language with no time to forget, and no need for review.
Properly structured, such a summer language program could also make use of “immersion” methods, which are universally acknowledged to be the best way of teaching a language, short of living in a country where the language is universally spoken.
At the end of the summer, students in the summer program would not only be much farther along in their target languages, they’d be ready to enter a third-year class.
A summer pilot program, using volunteer students, could be started as early as next summer. The results could be used to persuade students and parents to give up a big chunk of one summer in return for a marked increase in language proficiency.
That’s one idea. Here’s another. For weak math students slated to take Algebra I, create an August class, meeting for three hours a day for four weeks. Such a class would offer students the equivalent of nearly a semester’s head start on one of the most difficult and discouraging of high school subjects.
Ideally, an August class would consist of students scheduled to be together in the fall, thus permitting their regular-term teacher to pick up where the students left off in August. By starting with concentrated study, and going more slowly through the material, we could cut failure rates dramatically.
If we want better education, we must think outside the box – and the old, agrarian school calendar.