LLOYD GRAY: Low tolerance for high standards



A lot of hand-wringing goes on these days about the academic performance of American students. We’re in the middle of the pack internationally, at best, behind most major industrial nations and even trailing places like Poland, Vietnam, Slovenia and Estonia.

Mississippi, of course, is well behind the rest of the nation. So we’re doubly challenged.

Yet sometimes you have to wonder whether we really understand what it will take to do better.

The Mississippi Legislature won’t fund K-12 education to the level that the law requires, but it’s happy to mess around with school calendars at the behest of tourism interests and parents who want a longer stretch of school-free summer in August. And now the chairman of the House Education Committee proposes to cut back the required number of school days by a full week.

What is going on here?

The most obvious difference between educationally high-performing nations and the U.S. is time spent in the classroom. We go to school significantly fewer days and those days are shorter than our toughest international competition.

In our country, the highest performing charter schools – which many of our legislators believe are a key ingredient to educational improvement in Mississippi – have lengthened the school day to provide more instructional time.

Schoolchildren in Mississippi need to be in school more, not less. Yet our policymakers are seriously contemplating knocking five days off the calendar.

The rationale is that there are days just before holidays and after state tests where little gets done in the classroom. If this is true, and it probably is in some cases, the answer surely is not just to throw those days away, but to be more vigilant about ensuring that they are used for educational purposes.

That we’d even talk about reducing the number of school days speaks to a larger cultural issue. We might as well acknowledge that Americans generally aren’t as willing to make the sacrifices other countries are to improve our student performance.

We see longer school days and extended calendars – or heaven forbid, year-round schooling – as burdensome inconveniences that get in the way of more important things like sports, other outside activities, family vacations or various forms of electronic entertainment.

We say that we want our children to get the best education possible, but then we push back if there’s too much homework or projects are too challenging or our kids are asked to really think about, analyze and apply what they are taught.

And while there are parents who complain to a teacher or principal that their child isn’t graded hard enough, isn’t asked to do enough, isn’t sufficiently challenged, they are much rarer than those who will protest that too much is being asked or that their child is being treated unfairly.

This cuts across all socioeconomic categories. The sense of entitlement that has seeped so much into our broader culture affects our attitudes toward school. We want our children to achieve, but we don’t want them to have to work too hard to get there.

Children in Finland, Japan, South Korea or any other country that significantly outperforms us aren’t smarter than American kids. Their families and their schools just expect more of them, and get it.

In a recent speech on this same theme, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted the cultural divide and said parents are where the reversal of our educational performance begins.

“Parents have the power to challenge educational complacency here at home,” Duncan said. “Parents have the power to ask more of their leaders – and to ask more of their kids.”

A good way to start would be to tell legislators that cutting back on school days is not something a state serious about education ought to do.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.

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