Idea of the day: longer and more school days

school-bus-topThe AP reports that the Obama administration is proposing a longer school year and longer school days.  Children in other nations, says Obama and the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, spend up to 30% more time in school.  America needs to align itself with the international norm.

As someone who spent all of her elementary school days and part of the middle school in China, I can attest to the astonishment that my 12-year-old self felt when I first came to the States and discovered that a normal school day was over by 2:30 pm.  In China, I have often stayed in class until 7:00 or even 8:00 p.m.  My memory of 5th and 6th grade involved going to school in the dark and coming home long after dark.  By comparison, the American school schedule, as well as the content of its classes, seemed like child’s play.

The long 2.5 or even 3 month summers were also a novelty to me.  In Beijing, the school year was out in mid-July, and resumed in early September.  We had at most a month and a half of summer vacation.

Personally, I think the change is long overdue.  President Obama hit the nail on the head when he called the current American school calendar an outdated one based on the “agrarian calendar.”  The only surprise, for me, is how long it took for people to catch on to this fact.

Obama justified his proposal in terms of catching up with international standards and making American students competitive against students in other (Asian?) countries.  But his proposal has an additional benefit: narrowing the achievement gap between students of different socio-economic classes.

Just yesterday, my friend and I talked about Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers (which I still have to read), a book that, as I have since learned, is really about education.  My friend mentioned the well-known study that Gladwell cites in his book by Johns Hopkins sociology professor Karl Alexander about “summer learning loss.”  Put briefly, the Alexander study shows that in Baltimore Public Schools, low-income students actually learn more during the school year than their middle- and upper-middle-class classmates, but they fall behind during the summer while their richer peers gained more ground.  Gladwell concluded in his book that although the conventional wisdom is that we must “improve” the inner-city schools, school itself is likely not the problem.  Too little school is.

If Gladwell and Alexander’s points are correct, increasing the length of the school year and the school days will not only make American students more competitive on the global market, it will help eliminate the advantage that richer students have over their poorer counterparts and make our education system more equitable.  Seems like a worthy goal to me.

The ethics of giving money to Harvard

HarvardRandy Cohen, aka the Ethicist at the New York Times, had an interesting post on his blog about whether it is moral to give money to Harvard.  The short answer: don’t bother.  In Cohen’s words, it’s like offering “more pie to a portly fellow while the gaunt and hungry press their faces to the window.”  Cohen’s argument elicits a “duh” response from any good consequentialist, which is Cohen’s default ethical position.  Clearly, if your aim is to do the greatest possible amount of good, then giving your extra dollar to an institution with $26 billion will not be as effective as, say, giving it to a poor community college.  (Though, come to think of it, why give to institutions at all?  How about just giving it to a starving third-world child instead?)

What especially interests me about Cohen’s post is what it reveals about our notion of what universities are.  Cohen suggests that universities–even private ones–should be considered public institutions like national parks and roads.  Indeed, in Europe and Asia, higher education institutions are overwhelmingly regarded as such, though the trend may be towards more privatization.  America is the exception here, and higher education is often spoken of as a commodity.  Similarly, the relationship between student and the university is discussed in legal terms (by courts and legal scholars) as almost exclusively a contractual relationship.

Yet the practice of donating to an alma mater belies this conventional wisdom.  Why do people give to Harvard and other educational institutions when they (usually) receive nothing of value in return, other than some marginal reputational gains and a generic thank-you note from the Dean of Development?

Something more than a consumer mentality is obviously at work here.  Alumni give to a school out of perhaps a sense of loyalty to the community that the university has fostered, or to an identity that the university represents, out of nostalgia for the golden days of their school years, or perhaps out of gratitude for what the university has helped them become.  What is clear, however, is that the role of a university in people’s lives is complex and cannot be defined by only economics.

Child left behind

Welcome to the law and education blog.  In my first post, I thought it would be appropriate to share this very powerful article that was published in the New York Times three days ago, called A Lost Student.   Although I don’t know her, the author of this essay went to my law school around the same time as me.  In the essay, she writes about a student named Patrick, whom she helped when she worked for Teach for America in Arkansas.

Patrick began coming to class. Like a matchmaker, I helped him find books he might like. When he read, he laughed out loud. And reading made him want to write. It was painful, at times, to watch Patrick write, because half of what he wrote he erased. Every word that let him down he viewed as a personal failure — he wrote like a writer. I took away his pencil and gave him a pen.

His progress made me happy. By the spring, Patrick’s reading had jumped two levels. At a school ceremony, he won the award for “Most Improved.” He looked surprised. Sheepishly, he walked up to the stage. He turned to the students, who were still clapping, and then, suddenly, he raised both arms up in the air: a victory pose. Everybody laughed.

It was some two and a half years later, when I was at law school in the Northeast, that I learned Patrick was arrested for stabbing and killing someone.

The end of the essay is quietly devastating.  It brought tears to my eyes.  It is a fitting story for the first post of this blog because it describes the magnificent difference a mentor could make in a student’s life, and how frail the fruit of that effort is.  It is a story of the enormous potential in everyone, the power of education to unleash it, and how easily that potential can be thwarted and destroyed.

This essay leads me to ask many questions, questions that I hope to explore in this blog.  It helps explain why education issues seem especially relevant and compelling to me.  Education has the power to change people, open up new universes within and without them.  Moreover, more than any other institutions in our society, free and mandatory public education is a source of social justice.  It is the great equalizer, even as it is riddled with inequalities.  It is the tool with which those without money and connections, like Patrick, might improve their stations in life.  And if, as Thomas Jefferson says (and I paraphrase), the prerequisite of democracy is an educated and informed electorate, then our education system is also essential for the functioning of our political system in a society that is filled with people like Patrick as well as people like Michelle Kuo.

And yet, as the story of Patrick demonstrates, the effect of education is often frustratingly limited and ephemeral.  How, and why, has the system failed Patrick?

More related to my own training and interest, I wonder in what way can law and policy improve our education system.  What can law accomplish in this arena, and what are its limits?  How could law make our schools more fair, more transparent, more effective, and what should law refrain from changing even if change might be beneficial, because of other cherished values and principles in our society?

Patrick had access to public education, but he languished in the schools until a compassionate and intelligent educator came, saw the potential in him, and took an interest.  Institutions can only provide a framework for its actors to interact with each other.  It is the people within them that effectuate the goals of the institutions.  Could our education institutions “create” more people like Michelle Kuo?  How can we allow people like her to help more effectively and make those changes more permanent?

The answers, I know, will be as complex and ambiguous as our education system.