Vestiges

Chris Koepfer provides a commentary about the negative effects of the typical school year structure in the U.S. today.

     Generally speaking, a vestige is a less developed remnant of something that was previously more developed. There are physical vestiges such as the nubs of legs found on whales and snakes. It is believed these were once usable appendages that atrophied through the course of many years as these animals moved away from walking as their means of mobility.

    Archeologists often work with vestiges of ancient cities, monuments and artifacts in the form of ruins and rubble. Many of these sites were originally quite grand, but through the years deteriorated from neglect.

    Many of our nursery rhymes and fairy tales are vestiges of a time when people communicated verbally because reading was a rare talent and books to read were even rarer. Often, these rhymes and tales describe real events or stories whose originals are lost, yet their vestiges still exist.

    One example is the rhyme “Ring around the rosie” which is believed to be a description of the bubonic plague. Although not a PG-rated topic, children still recite the rhyme because it is only a vestige of its frightening origin.

    Probably the number one complaint I hear in my travels around the manufacturing universe is the lack of skilled or properly prepared workers to fill jobs. This seems incongruous to me. We have people who need good jobs, and we have good jobs that need people. What’s the deal?

    I’ve been thinking about the problem, and it occurs to me that part of the problem is a vestige at work. That vestige is a school calendar that reflects a time long gone yet endures tenaciously in way too many American communities.

    When we hear about students in other countries academically outperforming our kids in math and science, it begs the question, “why?” I did a little research.

    The typical American school year ranges from 175 to 180 days. Our typical school day is between 6.5 and 7 hours. Internationally, a typical school year runs between 210 and 250 days with 8 to 9 hours per day as the norm. American students typically spend a smaller percentage of this already shorter time on core instruction. For example, core instruction in U.S. schools is estimated at around 1,460 hours during the fourth year of high school compared with 3,170 hours in Japan, 3,528 hours in Germany and 3,280 hours in France.

    The American school calendar comes to us from a time when summers off were necessary for our agrarian society and also to reduce health risks from crowded classrooms. Today, that vestige is not reflective of the society we have become.

    Perhaps it is time to follow the example set by some U.S. schools and recreate the school calendar. Currently, 434 school districts in 46 states have managed to change the calendar by dividing the 180 days into balanced, year-round school sessions that better reflect the way we live. For example, one district goes to class for 45 days straight and then takes a 15-day break between sessions. Of course, there are various ways to divvy up the year, but in general the idea is to shorten the length of time between sessions from our current 3 months.

    In districts where this has been tried, a funny thing happened. After returning to the classroom from a shorter break, the need to review previously taught material was significantly reduced. Kids forget things during a long summer, and the subjects forgotten most are math and reading. Reducing the time spent re-teaching is, in effect, picking up time that can be used to present new material.

    Increasing the school year to 210 or 220 days seems like an obvious answer to our educational competitive gap, but in most communities, it is fiscally and politically not possible. It does seem to me, however, that moving to a year-round education is a possible step to wean us off the vestige of summer vacation and help our kids get the best education possible to prepare them for a world that doesn’t take its summers off. 