20 More School Days?

October 05, 1990

There's quite a commotion brewing in education circles. The Maryland State Board of Education's approval of a plan requiring students to spend an extra month each year in school has critics descending on the board from all directions. Those lazy, hazy days of summer won't be turned into school days if opponents have their way.

This is a classic case of the patient refusing to swallow the medicine needed to affect a cure. Everyone agrees Maryland's school-age students are falling dangerously behind students from other Western nations in their mastery of scientific skills. The information explosion makes extra learning time essential.

But competing interest groups cannot agree on how to do this. Some jurisdictions prefer longer classes or an additional school period. Teachers insist on being paid extra and want more professional development. Parents don't want their summer vacation plans disrupted. And elected officials can't afford the $357 million price tag of the 20 extra school days.

Nor have state officials shown a willingness to pay for other education changes recommended by the Sondheim Commission and school superintendent Joseph Shilling, such as preschool classes for disadvantaged children and a drop-out age of 18 instead of 16. Without additional state funds, these changes will never take place.

The proposal to add 20 new school sessions seems extraordinarily expensive, especially for local governments. Moreover, there is no way the governor or the legislature can consider such a request now that the state is staring at what could be a $300 million deficit.

Rather than championing a plan with little political or community support, state educators ought to re-think their proposal for a longer school year. Yes, schools have to find ways to teach students more information more effectively. But different approaches ought to be tried. Local school boards should be encouraged -- with appropriate support from Annapolis -- to launch their own experiments. The ones that work could be applied statewide. This is a far better way to build a consensus for education reforms that work.

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