Changing school as we know it

May 10, 1994

On the same day a congressional commission released a study entitled "Prisoners of Time," urging a drastic overhaul of public education, including longer school days and longer school years, two education stories appeared in The Sun:

* A project giving four Baltimore City elementary schools the autonomy to improve their programs was abruptly canceled when the prime sponsor feared the experiment couldn't be applied city-wide.

* The Baltimore Teachers Union pronounced itself "shocked" and "astounded" that city Superintendent Walter Amprey had told a Hartford, Conn., audience he would like to turn over all city schools to the private operator of the Tesseract program.

There is irony in the fact that as a national commission urges a complete overhaul of education as we know it, the school community struggles over an oil change and lube.

There is little quarrel that American schools need to serve students better, and that youngsters must be better prepared for a work world that is tougher to crack than the one their parents entered. But this new study notwithstanding, that may be all we as a society can agree upon.

The public does not seem swayed by the argument that teen-agers in Germany, France and Japan average more than 3,000 hours a year on core subjects, compared to less than 1,500 hours for U.S. youths.

As for the argument from the National Education Commission on Time and Learning that the six-hour school day and 180-day school year should be "relegated to museums," we agree, but most parents don't. Remember the local outrage over short-term adjustments in school schedules to make up for the lost time from winter ice storms? To move in the direction this panel suggests would require a massive mind-set shift -- even before considering tax implications and the impact on seasonal businesses.

Consensus may be easier to reach on the commission's conclusion that American high school curriculums are diluted by excessive non-core subjects. The average high schooler spends less than half his or her time on such basics as English, math, science, history, geography, foreign languages, civics and art. That is clearly inadequate.

Intrinsic to performance inside the schools, however, is what's going on outside of them. In a global assessment of school systems two years ago by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., American kids fared worst in two areas: time spent on homework and on watching television. We can turn our school systems upside-down and it won't correct that fundamental deficiency.

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