If School Is Mostly a Waste of Time, Why Spend More Time There?


Yesterday Jesse Walker noted that President Obama wants to improve primary and secondary education by making the school day longer, shortening vacations, or both. Although I agree that current school schedules and calendars are not necessarily optimal, increasing the amount of time that kids spend in classrooms strikes me as a bad idea, at least until schools can give a plausible answer to this question: What the hell are they doing with all of the time they have now?

My middle daughter, who is in kindergarten at a public elementary school in Dallas, starts at 8 a.m. and finishes at 3 p.m., so they have her for seven hours a day, five days a week. The total for the year, taking vacations into account, is around 1,500 hours, and that's without considering homework. (Yes, they give homework in kindergarten now.) That's more than enough time to learn reading, printing, and numbers. My impression, based on conversations with my daughter, the glimpses I've had of her classroom, and the work she has to make up when she misses school, is that very little of her in-school time is spent actually learning anything.

This is not necessarily a knock against this particular school, or even against public schools in general. My own experience at private elementary and high schools was similar, and it did not change very much in the upper grades. The dominant model for primary and secondary education, which involves herding kids together into classrooms, yakking at them, having them read stuff aloud, giving them worksheets, and sending them home with more work, seems to be incredibly inefficient. Even the existence of homework is a concession of failure. Schools have kids for seven or eight hours a day, but somehow that's not enough time to teach them what they need to learn. By sending students home with more stuff to do, teachers essentially are conscripting parents to do their jobs for them.

I don't have any neat answers to this problem, which as I said goes beyond the public vs. private dichotomy. But fostering more competition, more experimentation, and more diversity in educational models has to be part of the solution. Toward that end, Obama is right to support charter schools (although I'd prefer that that the federal government stay out of education altogether). And while some schools, competing for students, might highlight longer hours as an advantage, parents will be justifiably skeptical that the problem with education is insufficient time in a big brick box.

Jim Glassman highlighted the promise of charter schools more than a decade ago in Reason.