Weather puts a squeeze on school break

EDUCATION BEAT

Vacation: Students might think the summer was too short. But it can get shorter.

August 18, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

MOST SCHOOL districts in Maryland will be back in business Aug. 30, ending a summer vacation that went by all too quickly.

Making up days lost to snow and Isabel, many of these districts had extended the 2003-2004 school year well into June, and back-to-school ads made their appearance not too long after the July 4 holiday. Somehow, with all the rain, it seems as if we were cheated of summer.

But Marylanders who relish the traditional long school vacation should thank their lucky stars. There's a movement to begin school even earlier in August. Many Florida districts went into session Aug. 9. And a 2001 law in Texas required most schools in the Lone Star State to begin classes this week.

FOR THE RECORD - An item in Wednesday's column about the college rankings of the Princeton Review listed awards that were given in 2003, not this year. Marlboro College in Vermont won the 2004 award for best professors, the State University of New York at Albany for top party school, Pomona College in California for happiest students and Pepperdine University in California for best dormitories.

Colleges and universities realized long ago that an early start makes it possible to "close the books" on the first semester and schedule final exams before the winter break. Moreover, an earlier start helps educators prepare students for state tests that, these days, frequently fall in the first half of each semester.

And squeezing the vacation from both ends helps address the "summer learning fall-off" that affects mostly urban and rural children who tend not to be intellectually stimulated in June, July and August.

None of these arguments convinces a growing body of traditionalists, who aren't going to cede summer without a fight. Groups like Save Our Summer (SOS) and Texans for a Traditional School Year are popping up everywhere. The traditionalists, abetted by the nation's huge recreation industry, argue that shrinking the summer causes more stress among children who already lead harried lives.

Never mind that short school years with a long summer hiatus aren't the norm in most of the rest of the world. Children in other industrialized countries spend more days in school and more hours per day in school than do their American counterparts.

And even though the school vacation is shorter, European parents take longer work vacations than do Americans. Moreover, their kids perform better than Americans on international science and math tests.

U.S. colleges prepare for annual beauty pageant

You'd think it was the release of the 9/11 Commission report. At 12:01 a.m. Friday - not a minute beforehand - U.S. News & World Report will put its annual ranking of America's colleges and universities on its Web site.

By Friday afternoon, dozens of schools that have ticked up a notch or two in the beauty pageant will have papered the news media with joyful announcements. But the schools won't have to wait for the deadline to get the news. About 45,000 people in higher education will receive "confidential notification" by e-mail today from the magazine's director of media relations. And reporters get the word tomorrow so they can prepare their stories for Friday.

After all that weekend publicity, the magazine itself, always a big seller, appears on newsstands Monday.

U.S. News takes itself too seriously. I prefer the more whimsical Princeton Review rankings, which came out Monday. The Review, known for its test preparation courses, this year gives its Best Profs award to Middlebury College in Vermont, its Top Party School nod to the University of Colorado at Boulder, its Happiest Students award to DePaul University in Chicago and its Best Campus Dorms award to (drum roll) Loyola College of Maryland.

School choice advocates suffer a double setback

It's been a bad few days for proponents of school choice. First, the Florida Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 ruling Monday, upheld a lower court decision striking down the country's first statewide voucher program. The court ruled that because vouchers can be used at sectarian schools in Florida, the program violates the state constitution.

Then The New York Times reported yesterday that children in charter schools generally have lower scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than children in regular schools.

The first national comparison of charter school scores and regular school scores was given to the newspaper by the American Federation of Teachers, which found it among data maintained online by the U.S. Department of Education.

Md. schools superintendent takes a week in Iceland

Lots of people in education go to the beach in August. Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland schools superintendent, has just returned from a week in Iceland.

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