Thursday, June 16, 2011

Korea shortens its school week, and what about us?

The South Korean government is recommending that all primary and secondary schools cut the length of the school week to just five days. That will mean eliminating the Saturday classes that currently occur twice a month. The school year will fall from 205 days to 190 days, compared to the 180 to 185 that are common in the U.S.

An interesting piece of the story is that this decrease in school hours is meant to accompany a decrease in the Korean work week to forty hours. (Not many of the American adults who would like to see kids work longer hours in school are also asking to work more than forty hours themselves.) The widest concern expressed by the Korean public is that a shorter school week means that students who are poor or behind will have less chance to catch up. Although the express purpose of the change is "to foster a healthy leisure culture in which parents and children enjoy (time) together," one common assumption is that well-off families will send their kids to tutoring at private academies in the extra time, while poor families will not have that opportunity.

On order to accommodate the arts and sports that used to happen on those extra Saturdays, Korea has revamped its curriculum to allow space for such "enrichment" during the regular school week. Meanwhile, we in the US are moving from the other direction. Since passage of the No Child Left Behind bill, advocates of the arts have complained that they have been squeezed out of the curriculum, especially in high-poverty or low-performing school districts. Poor children, argue these advocates, are being shortchanged of the very experiences that will keep them emotionally connected to school and will offer them a doorway to culture and self-expression.

Mass 2020, which advocates for expanded learning time in Massachusetts and nationwide, starts with the premise that children of poverty deserve the same learning experiences that their middle class peers get outside of school. Founder Chris Gabrieli argues that despite what they say, middle class parents believe in extended learning time and provide it for their children in the form of tennis lessons, music lessons, Cub Scouts, gymnastics, and science clubs, not to mention visits to libraries, bookstores, and museums. Children from poor neighborhoods are only going to get these experiences in school, and schools will only be able to fit in such a well-rounded program by expanding students' time in school.

Mass 2020 pressed for legislation in Massachusetts allowing schools to apply for extra funding to become expanded time schools. They had to submit a plan for extending school time by at least 300 hours a year, and for restructuring the school day to build a seamless program incorporating whatever enrichment or extension the school deems most important. Often the expansion includes the arts, homework help, more concentrated time on core academics, more hands-on science, and more electives. Currently, 19 expanded learning time schools serve 10,000 Massachusetts students, and schools with strong planning and several years of implementation have been able to show impressive gains in student learning.

My one disappointment in looking at the expanded learning time initiative is that none of the schools have opted to expand time into the summer. It's in summer that we see significant learning loss that often amounts to more than two months' backsliding in both math (for all schoolkids) and reading (only for poor schoolkids). I'd love to see a few schools try, say, four weeks of inspiring summer programming in science and art with great books to read and some daily use of mathematics. Maybe with such a midsummer boost, kids would start the new school year tuned up and ready to go, bypassing the need for teachers to spend the first couple of months reviewing last year's work and trying to figure out what the kids remember.

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