Strapped for cash, many schools across the country — including those in Los Angeles — have trimmed five to 10 days off the traditional 180-day academic year. This provides an incongruous backdrop to President Obama's call last week for lengthening the school year by about a month.
Added instructional time benefits learning, though there is disagreement on how much. Obama's rationale was that several countries that outstrip the United States in academic achievement often have school years of 195 days or a little more.
But schools in those countries do many things differently. Is it the extra 15 days of instruction that make the biggest difference, or other factors — better use of classroom time, more refined teaching techniques, more involved parents and disciplined students?
The Obama administration has a tendency to pop up with new approaches to public education whether or not the reasoning and research behind them is solid. The Race to the Top initiative is a mix of good ideas — such as more sophisticated data systems, which California embarrassingly lacks — and ones without much evidence to recommend them, such as drastically increasing the number of charter schools.
The president rightly points out that over a 10-week summer vacation, students forget some of what they learned. Low-income students especially lose ground because their parents can't afford camps and other activities that keep children's minds active. Government might do more for students, and at much lower cost, by funding educational yet entertaining summer programs at schools in poor neighborhoods. Here's one exemplary model: At the Freedom Schools, a privately developed and funded summer program, children go on field trips, engage in fun educational activities and do a lot of reading and writing. About 200 children in Los Angeles participated last summer. A study found that the program improves children's reading ability.
The strained economy shouldn't keep the nation from crafting school improvements, but Obama's pitch for longer school years is unhelpful right now. No one knows when states will be fiscally healthy enough to bring all schools back to 180 days. Adding three to four weeks beyond that isn't something most educators would bother considering right now.
The administration has displayed more commitment to improving education than any previous presidency, and more financial support for achieving it. What it has not done yet is craft a coherent, consistent, research-based strategy that can pragmatically improve schools during financially stressful times.