Categories » ‘Vision’

Should the School Day Get Longer?

March 29th, 2009 by

There seems to be a growing call across the country to lengthen the school day.  Advocates from every political stripe see this as an easy softball issue.  Really, who would be against our kids getting smarter?

Plus, one can hear the clarion call of fearmongering leaders who warn that Americans, after years of statistical gains, are either: 1) dropping out of school at alarmingly increasing rates, or 2) falling behind our industrialized-world counterparts in academic achievement.  This can only mean one thing: we need more school time!

Let’s look at this more closely.  First, the measurement of dropout rates has been a highly contentious issue.  For such a seemingly basic statistic, one hardly knows where to turn.  For instance, the 2000 graduation rate has been pegged in the United States at anywhere between 62 and 88 percent- depending on whose research report you’re reading.  That’s a pretty wide disparity of numbers for something that one can imagine could be easily calculated.  Really… we can land a man on the moon, and yet we can’t figure out a simple statistical datum with a disparity of less than 26 percentage points?

By most accounts, the dropout rate is (and has been for the past 20 years) between 10 and 12 percent with variable spikes and valleys throughout that span.  There has been neither sharp increase nor appreciable decrease since 1990.  This “alarming” dropout rate is certainly no reason to increase the amount of time kids spend in school.

Another tactic used by the panic-of-the-week politicos goes something like this (perhaps you’ve read an article like this before?)…

Headline: American Children Falling Behind Kids in (Japan, Australia, Canada, insert most worrisome country here) in (Science, Mathematics).

What kind of sick sport is this?  Let’s pit the children of the world against each other in academic competition?  What does the winner get?  Really, I’m with Alfie Kohn on this one, when he says that these types of academic competitions and comparisons only lead to a culture that filters down… not only are countries pitted against countries, but states against states, districts against other districts in their state, schools within a district against each other… and ultimately kids against kids.  How disquieting it is to know that my 7th grader is judged, not by the merits of his own learning, but, rather, by how he stacks up against the other 32 kids in his math class.  In his book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, Kohn states (and I paraphrase): if all countries do poorly in terms of academic excellence, what glory is there in being at the top; likewise, if all countries do well, what shame is there in being at the bottom?

Surely, this artificial competition between countries, states, districts, and schools is no reason to elongate the school day.  That this competition may be about money… well, that’s a different question, but I won’t digress in this post.

Many Youth-Development-Based programs operate today, but are being threatened by the spectre of extended day programs that the feds and states have implemented.  In California, this has led to more state requirements and strings attached to funding while weakening some of the strengths of asset-based (Youth Development) programs.  More on this in another post.  The point being that the state (in California and other ‘forward looking’ states) are poised to co-opt afterschool programming to use it to create a longer school day.  This is a nefarious and ill-advised idea.

Schools don’t need more time.  Really- they have our children hostage six-plus hours a day, 180-plus days a year.  Really, if they’re saying they can’t get the job done in that amount of time, why should we, the parents and public, be willing to give them additional time?  Like marketing guru Dale Calvert told me over a decade ago… “don’t wish you had more… wish you were better!”

And now a word from Dale Carnegie

January 26th, 2009 by

Our older kids are about to embark upon a KidzLit project centering on the timeless classic by Dale Carnegie, “How To Win Friends and Influence People.”  For a group of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders, I am sure this will be quite a challenge as many of the cultural references, not to mention the language of the prose itself, is quite dated. 

But as soon as I began re-reading the book, I realized why this is such an important book for not just kids, but everyone, to read (and re-read if you haven’t gone over it in a few years).  In the first section of the book, Dale Carnegie walks us through his three big ideas on getting along with other people.  He quotes a young Charles Schwab admonishing us as we walk through life to be “hearty in our approbation and lavish in our praise.”

I have to admit that of late, I have been in that crowy winter funk, and my doling-out of both approbation and praise had been on the wane, especially around the children.  So, freshly inspired by the reading, I made certain to change my ways.

First test: Cleanup Time.

For awhile now, we’ve been working on the idea of “community,” especially around the area of cleanup.  I’m happy to report that the group of kids functions on a higher plane now than it did a year ago, especially around responsibility and care for our things, as well as the actual cleaning up process.  However, it still remains an irritant to see some children not engaged in the process… and a temptation to do specifically what Carnegie says never works… to criticize.  So this morning, I purposely and forcefully took the opposite tack.  I praised.

Two of the older junior staff members (our 4th and 5th grade leadership crew) had done simply a wonderful job in the reading area, carefully insuring that all the books on the bookshelf were placed facing the correct way and that litter and other toys had been picked up from the couches.  Two of our younger charges (including one who often uses cleanup time to do, well, nothing) took great care in the play-kitchen area, putting the play food back correctly in the refrigerator and cupboards, and stacking the dishes neatly on the shelf.  As the kids came together after cleanup time, I boomed out, “all right!  So, who was responsible for the reading area this morning!?”  As soon as NO HANDS went up, I got my first clue that maybe I hadn’t been showing much appreciation recently.  The kids responsible shot furtive glances over to the reading area to see what might have been missed.  Cal said, “um, it was Travis.”  Travis immediately shot back, that, no, it was Cal who did the cleaning this morning.  At that I said “Oh… that’s good- I’ll tell the both of you then… the reading area looks outstanding!  In fact, I haven’t seen the reading area this clean and organized in a very long time… you both did an amazing job!” 

The looks on the faces of both the boys melted into… I suppose sheer happy pride is the best way to describe it.  I have a feeling that both Cal and Travis will be giving commensurate effort in the future, probably taking over the responsibility of overseeing the reading area.

I repeated the process with Sally and Candace who cleaned the play kitchen area.  Both had seen how it went with the boys, and were eager to take the credit for helping.  Again, from the looks on their faces, I have a feeling, at least for the short run, we’ll have no problems keeping the play kitchen clean.

The mood of the whole room, and might I be so bold as to suggest, the whole day, hinged and changed on those two minutes.  And I, and the rest of the staff, were reminded of the power of acknowledgement.  Thank you Charles Schwab, and thank you, Dale Carnegie for sharing your “big secret in dealing with people” so many years ago.  It’s effects continue to reverberate.

Stuck In The Forest

December 31st, 2008 by

Free Interior Design

I recently learned of an experience where a Luisa, a community citzen, who had had two children go through the world of after-school care, offered to take on a project- for free -  to organize a volunteer interior designer and coordinate donations to transform the environment of a local SAC center into “something of beauty, something that would inspire the kids and the staff each day when they came to this place.”  Now, I don’t know about you, but most after-school sites I’ve visited (and, yes, I’ll include my own on this list) tend to be a bit institutional-looking, with hand-me-down everythings, and not much going on in the arena of aesthetic interior design.  I was excited to see how this project would progress. 

Do You Want It?

While she garnered the support of the director of the site, she encountered stiff opposition from the agency’s manager.  Reasons cited for the opposition ranged from concerns with state licensing to volunteer vetting to simply “that’s not the way we’ve always done it.”  I spoke with her after her meeting with the agency manager, and felt sorry for her.  She came to this agency with a “gift” in her hand, and was turned away- and told every reason why it wouldn’t work.  I encouraged her to find another agency or program and offer it again- not every agency could be as closed-minded as this first one, right?  Or could it?

I was upset at the lack of vision of the manager. 

Do I close off possibility?

And then I got to thinking.  How many times had I, at my own site, closed off vision, taken myself out of being present to possibilities when they’re presented to me?  Just a couple weeks ago, a staff member approached me with some thoughts about rearranging our site’s daily schedule… and what was my initial reaction?  It was a huge NO.  Of course, I didn’t yell that horrid two-letter word at the requesting staff member, but I made my firm opposition clear.  Inside my head, the voices were shouting and rebelling against the idea.

Fortunately, after my change-resistant, “we’ve always done it this way” internal dialogue finally quieted, I went back to the staff member and explained my reaction, apologized for being so instantaneously inflexible, and told her that I might need some time to digest the idea, but I wanted to leave it open for discussion.

How many times do we resist any change, any suggestion that possibilities exist for transforming what exists in the now into something more inspirational?  I challenge you to find your automatic “NO” spots, listen more closesly in the coming weeks for possibilities that call to you, and let things that move and inspire you have more space at the table than the comfort of “how it’s always been done.”

As for Luisa, I hope that she finds an organization or agency that is open enough to possibility to see what she brings as a gift- not a challenge to the status quo.  Thanks for your gift, Luisa.