Prescription for U.S. schools: more time on teaching basics, less on frills

May 06, 1994|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writers Peter Hermann, Sherry Joe, Mary Maushard and Sherrie Ruhl contributed to this article

American schools must spend substantially more time teaching the basics and less on frills to catch up with the nation's economic competitors, a federal report released yesterday concludes.

The report by the National Education Commission on Time and Learning recommends that schools spend at least five and a half hours a day on "core" subjects such as English, math, science and civics, a significant increase from the three hours that an average student now receives.

"We're saying to communities you have to examine your own priorities, make sure you're spending the time on the core academic subjects," said Christopher T. Cross, a commission member from Chevy Chase who also sits on the Maryland State Board of Education.

The commission's report calls for an expansion of the school day and year, both to allow more time for instruction and to help meet the child-care needs of harried families.

"By living with the constraints of yesterday's school calendar, our nation is committing slow-motion social suicide," commission Chairman John Hodge Jones said.

One of the report's most dramatic findings was that high school students in Germany, France and Japan spend more than twice as much time on core academics as their American counterparts do.

To help address that, the report suggests holding some activities, such as health education, study halls and pep rallies, outside the school day to allow more time for teaching.

It also recommends a re-examination of the traditional school schedule of six-hour days broken into 50-minute periods.

Mandated by Congress and two years in the making, the report drew varied reactions from parents, administrators and union officials.

"Do we teach stuff that probably is ridiculous? Yes," said Baltimore County Superintendent Stuart Berger. "But the stuff they picked out -- sex, drug and AIDS education, for example -- I would think there is pretty strong public sentiment for it."

"I do think we need a longer school year and longer school day, because more and more has been crushed into it," said Michael Hickey, superintendent of Howard County schools.

Responding to one committee recommendation, to "develop local action plans to transform schools,"Dr. Berger said, "The last thing we need to do is develop one more plan. What we need to do is implement the . . . plans we have."

Karl Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said the report could spark a healthy debate about academic priorities.

"It's not just a case of changing your calendar," Mr. Pence said. "You have to talk about what you want the kids to get out of it."

Maryland officials have flirted for several years with the idea of lengthening the school calendar.

In 1990, former state school Superintendent Joseph L. Schilling proposed adding 20 days to the 180-day school calendar but abandoned the idea in the face of a large state budget deficit.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer has pushed year-round schools recently as a way to improve education and reduce the need for building new schools.

But the public has reservations.

Judging by the less-than-favorable reaction to this spring's extended school day -- necessitated by the time lost to winter weather -- Dr. Berger said he did not think there was strong support for longer days or school years.

"I am entirely against prolonging the school day and prolonging the school year," said Terry Gilleland, a junior at North County High School in Ferndale and the incoming student member on the Anne Arundel County school board. "We can focus and use the time that we do have more wisely."

Philip L. Powell, who has two children attending Meadowvale Elementary in Havre de Grace, said crowded classes have more of an effect on learning than the length of the school day does.

"My son's kindergarten class has nearly 30 students. That makes itvery difficult for him to learn," Mr. Powell said.

"There's so much wasted time [at the end of the academic year]," said Wafa Sturdivant, who has three children, ages 4 to 14, in Howard County public schools. "What they're doing in class needs to be looked at."

Ms. Sturdivant is not against a longer school day, she said, but she questioned the effect on young children.

"Just adding hours isn't necessarily going to add instructional time," she said. "If their bodies haven't moved in a while, they're not going" to learn.

The nine-member commission was made up of business leaders, educators and politicians.

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