180 Days and Set in Stone

March 12, 1994|By MIKE BOWLER

Some say local school boards are useless, but don't apply that to Maryland's boards. Aren't they valiantly wrestling with the policy question of the decade: How to ''make up'' the ''snow days'' supposedly ''lost'' this winter?

Does anyone really believe that adding 45 minutes to the school day for the next two months, or lengthening the school year in June, will replenish the brain cells emptied during the winter storms?

If we follow the thinking of the educators, there are 180 of those cells in each child's brain. In some districts, as many as 12 were emptied this year when they had to stay home in the bad weather.

Current thinking is that it's better to refill them in 45-minute sessions during April and May than in full-day sessions in June, when surging hormones and humidity make brain-cell filling well nigh impossible.

The trouble here is that educators, like the rest of Americans, love to count things. They particularly love to count units of input rather than units of output. The school year is divided by state law into 180 days, the curriculum into ''Carnegie units.'' Teachers are trained according to ''clock hours'' of student teaching and methods courses.

When the state moved recently to make it easier for people to shift careers into teaching, there came a howl of protest. People could step into the classroom with only two weeks of on-the-job training, for heaven's sake!

What is missing in all this counting is that which is actually accomplished during those days, those units, those clock hours.

And so it is with the length of the school year. The number 180 is purely arbitrary. The school year (and day) probably ought to be longer, as they are in most other Western democracies. But the argument here is not for a longer day or year; it's for making the ''snow days'' actually mean something.

Here four modest proposals:

* Make the 180-day school year advisory, or stipulate that ''school days'' can be counted even if they occur away from school, even if they occur -- revolutionary! -- at home.

* Over the summer, every school in the state prepares a ''snow packet'' of, say, eight lessons. In the late fall, every student takes a packet home and saves it in case of wicked weather. The lessons are tailored for the season when disruptive storms are likely. Students might study snow or weather forecasting, for example, or African-American history during Black History Month. High school students might consider the ''American hero,'' since so many of them were born in January and February. For the young philosophers or mathematicians: Is it possible that no two snowflakes are alike?

* On snow days, pre-taped lessons are broadcast on public television. Primary kids watch from 8 to 9 a.m., elementary kids from 10 to 11, middle school students from 1 to 2 and high school students from 3 to 4. Channel One, the national news and public-affairs program already beamed into Baltimore secondary schools, switches to public television for the storm's duration. (It's repeated three times during the day.) This could be combined with the snow packet, and kids can gather with neighborhood friends to watch. They'll like it; they can chew gum and talk among themselves while they learn. (TV, don't forget, is their medium.)

* All Maryland teachers get voice mail. This allows them to keep in touch with students and parents not only during snow or heat emergencies, but during the rest of the school year.

The complaints are predictable. Some students won't do the assignments. It's too expensive. Public television won't cooperate. Can you legally require students to do what amounts homework? None of these is insurmountable. And as for the first complaint -- that some students won't do the assignments without teachers there to direct them -- of course they won't. These are the same students who don't do the assignments when they go to school.

These suggestions also help bring education into the 20th century. Two of the world's ancient professions have not changed. Its oldest profession hasn't needed to change because the technology of prostitution is timeless. Education, perhaps the second-oldest profession, is still conducted much as it was 2,000 years ago: teacher and a small group of students. Why not use the tools of modern technology, television and the computer, to help students learn -- even at home, even when the weather outside is frightful? Why not stop counting and start teaching?

F: Mike Bowler edits The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.

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