"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Saturday, July 31, 2010

When can we stop acting like a 19th century agricultural society?

Although I grew up in a rural part of my state--I even had classmates who belonged to 4H--I did not have to return home in time to milk the cows or muck the stable or whatever it is that farm kids do in the late afternoon. Nor was it necessary for me to help bring in the harvest at the end of the summer. My dad worked at Bell Labs.

35 years later, we are still running our schools on a farm schedule. The summer thing is one of those impenetrable entrenched cultural habits, compounded with the cost of adding air conditioning to buildings built in the first half of the 20th century.

But the early morning start and mid-afternoon finish has ceased making sense generations ago. In fact, cops will tell you that most juvenile arrests happen between 3:30 and 6:00. Moreover, the schedule has a negative impact on student success, especially in high school. A much-reported experiment at a Rhode Island private school pushed the schedule back to start at 8:30, deducting five minutes from each class to keep dismissal time the same.
Among the results: The portion of students reporting at least eight hours of sleep on school nights jumped from about 16 percent to almost 55 percent; reports of daytime sleepiness dropped substantially, from 49 percent to 20 percent; first period tardiness dropped by almost half and students reported having more time to eat a hot, more nutritious breakfast. [Dean Patricia] Moss believed the healthy breakfast was a strong contributor in the increased alertness throughout the mornings.
So why isn't your district going to adopt this suggestion? First, it's all about the buses. Most districts in my part of the country are apparently bus companies which hold classes in order to keep the students occupied between bus rides. Bus schedules and costs drive most scheduling questions.

Second, and this is the bigger issue, schools are run for the convenience of parents, or more accurately, for parents' employers. Classes must start as close to when Mom and Dad leave the house as possible. Now that employers have found that society was willing to have both parents work in order to have the same purchasing power as one parent had 40 years ago, everyone has become yoked to the needs of business institutions. Wouldn't it be marvelous if a business took the attitude, as long as you're getting the work done we don't care when and where you do it. I understand a retail operation can't work that way, nor indeed a school, but I spent most of my life in the private sector where I believe the need to have everyone gathered in the same place at the same time is vastly overrated.

Maybe if we had to start at 8, we could start high school with a low-key discussion class, deal with character and ethical issues and community building, rather than start right in with cramming data down their throats along with the lattes. Assuming schools are interested in character and ethics, of course...

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