Amid California’s energy crisis, Gov. Gray Davis has not forgotten his campaign pledge to make education his top priority. In his 2001-02 budget, Davis slated $1.45 billion to extend California middle schools’ academic year by 30 days, from 180 to 210. Although the governor’s commitment to education is unquestionable, this proposal points down the wrong path and muddles academic priorities.
In 1998, California raised the bar for scholastic performance, and Davis’ most recent plan is just one in a string of initiatives he has introduced in an effort to raise students’ faltering test scores. The revised curriculum, which requires approval from the state legislature, would not be mandatory. Instead, individual school districts that choose to participate would receive a 17 percent increase in funding to cover teachers’ salaries and additional costs. Davis has argued that schools require the extra time in order to effectively teach the current curriculum, and his educational advisors have cited a need to curtail the academic "backsliding" that occurs over an extended summer vacation. These are valid points, but Davis’ proposal remains an inefficient allocation of resources.
An additional 30 days in the classroom would undoubtedly improve the education of middle school students, but first things first. Because California already has one of the longest academic years in the nation, the state’s No. 1 educational priority ought to be improving physical resources – textbooks, computers, classrooms, etc. – and raising teacher salaries. Extending the academic year before schools are staffed to do so risks spreading such institutions extremely thin.
The California Teachers Association has applauded the governor’s commitment to beefing up educational spending, but argues that the current shortage of qualified instructors precludes a six-week extension of the academic year. What most people fail to realize is that six more school weeks for students translates to nine more weeks of work for teachers, in light of the increased workload required outside of the classroom. One-and-a-half billion dollars is a lot of money, and should be used to improve resources to bring California’s poorer school districts up to par with those that already meet modern standards. Furthermore, this is not to say that certain curriculum reforms cannot be achieved in the meantime.
Davis has got it right when he argues that the typical, three-month summer vacation can be counterproductive. A few urban school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, have adopted a year-round block schedule. Such a system increases the number of school holidays, but shortens their duration, thus reducing potential academic "backsliding" and burnout without compromising time for family vacations or after-school work. Time away from school and room for extracurricular activities is extremely important for young children and teenagers, but three months is excessive. With the year-round schedule, working parents are relieved of some of the costs of daycare and babysitting, and adolescent delinquency declines. Such a system would not require a significant increase in expenditure and is, in short, a win-win situation for parents, teachers and children.
Davis has diligently campaigned for education in California, but at present, pouring $1.45 billion into a 30-day extension of the academic year is jumping the gun. Bumping up the number of school days may be a valuable and necessary measure, but this money must first be devoted to improving resources, both human and physical, in existing operations. In addition, a year-round block schedule is an important alternative that must be explored as an another first step to improving scholastic achievement.