Summer vacation is a powerful anachronism that dates back to agrarian days, when farm families needed young people home during the summer months to replace the three R's with the two P's -- plantin' and pickin'. Today, now that fewer family farms remain and agricultural mechanization is standard, students need to be harvesting knowledge year-round.
In the Internet age, information is more accessible, and learning should happen during and after the school day -- nights, weekends, and summers. As dreamy as a long summer break may be, unless a kid is flipping burgers six days a week, it's education downtime we can no longer afford. More than ten years ago, the U.S. Department of Education organized a panel with an unusual title: the National Education Commission on Time and Learning. The panel issued a report that began, "Learning in America is a prisoner of time. For the past 150 years, American public schools have held time constant and let learning vary. Some bright, hardworking students do reasonably well. Everyone else -- from the typical student to the dropout -- runs into trouble."
The problem, according to the commission, is not just the length of the school year but also the lockstep "gridding" of the school day. The report emphasized that American schools have been operating under the tyranny of time; the length of the typical school period (45-50 minutes), the school day (8 a.m. to 3 p.m. or so), and the school year (180 days) is remarkably rigid across the nation. Secondary school students, especially, are required to march in assemblyline fashion throughout the day, where bells still ring to signal the closing of books and the flooding of hallways. The unchanging schedule prevents students from working in depth on projects and venturing into the community to gather data or talk to local experts. Teachers are also isolated in their classrooms by this rigid schedule, so they miss out on opportunities to learn from other teachers and share ideas.
Teaching may be the only profession where members have so little control over how their time is spent. Other industrial nations recognize that more time can equal more learning: Countries like Germany and Japan have longer school days and years, lengthening the focus on core academic subjects. Some schools in the United States, however, have started instituting more innovative approaches to school schedules.
In the year-round program at Fairview Elementary School, in Modesto, California, for example (see "Power to the People,"), students benefit from an emphasis on civic literacy and responsibility in addition to a regular academic program with about the same number of school days as traditional schools. And for the 2004-05 school year, the Alice Carlson Applied Learning Center, in Fort Worth, Texas, scheduled four blocks of about nine weeks each and fall and spring intersession workshops, allowing its K-5 students time for hands-on arts, science, and computer projects or sports in addition to language arts and math enrichment. (For more information on year-round schools, visit the Web site of the National Association for Year-Round Education.)
As Ernest Hemingway once said, with typical brevity, "Time is all we have." It's about time schools change how they use it.
Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.