Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How About A Longer School Year?

A blog or two ago I wrote about a longer school year. A farmer friend of mine told me that there just wasn’t any way something like that would work! A friend of mine that owns a boat told me that there just wasn’t any way that would work! Now, even though I have been an educator for over thirty years now, I have lived by the philosophy of “don’t let school get in the way of your education.” There is actually a very long explanation for what that means, but suffice to say that I believe that there are a lot of life lessons learned outside of the four walls of a school. Communities raise children, and a child’s first and most important teachers are the parents. But at the same time, conversation about a longer school year persists and now, after a series of town meetings to tout his blueprint for education, Governor Branstad is forming a task force to study the feasibility of a longer school year for students in Iowa.

For a number of years, I have been an advocate of a longer school year. But it has to be more than adding a few days for kids in the classroom. If the powers that be sincerely want to make a difference, then change needs to be substantial. Currently schools in Iowa are required to have 180 days of school, but we all know that we do not have 180 full days of schools. Late starts, early outs, a variety of special programs, releases for athletic teams, and other interruptions take time away from classroom instruction. I’m not saying all of it is bad, but what is the focus of school? We can argue about that later! Anyway, I would suggest that students in Iowa attend school for 200 days, and 190 of those school days must be protected with absolutely no interruptions or shortened days. And, I would suggest that if students miss more than 5% of those days for any reason, they must make up that time in a supportive, instructional environment.

On top of this, I believe that teachers should have 20 days of professional learning and curriculum development time. It is imperative that teachers have this time to prepare properly for instruction, and to further develop their teaching skills. The two or three hours a month that we currently have in place are simply not enough with the expectations we have on our shoulders.

So what about summer and all of the activities that families engage in during the warm weather months? A summer break could still be put in place, but it would be shorter. Families would still have weekends for boating and camping. County fairs could shift their livestock shows from the morning to the evening. We already play baseball games before school is out. Summer work would take on a different look, but it would not be impossible for students to hold part-time jobs. And, what is the priority for young people anyway?

If we are truly interested in making improvements in our education programs in public education, a longer school year can contribute to that. Out kids do not spend as much time in school as in many other countries. It is one important part of the change that needs to occur, and it is possible. Our school calendar no longer needs to be based on spring planting and fall harvest. Agriculture does not demand the manual labor that it once did. It will cost more money, thus the question is when are we going to step up and put the interests of our children at the top of our priority list?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Roads and Schools: Why Are Both Suffering in Iowa?

I was having a conversation a while back with a Libertarian friend of mine and over the course of our chat, he made a comment about the lottery and legalized gambling in the Great State of Iowa, and asked me if I recalled the promises that were made back when all of that was approved by our political leaders. I was quick to respond that we were “guaranteed” that we would be flush with money from gambling/lottery proceeds for education in our state. He quickly responded, “and we were promised that we would have great roads!” Kind of funny how both are short of funding today, yet when I read in the papers, the casinos in Iowa are still doing pretty good business, and it sure seems that I stand a long time in line waiting for people in front of me to purchase lottery tickets. So what gives? Honestly, I don’t know!

Maybe this is one of those things that flew under the radar, or at least mine. Perhaps the agreement that lottery proceeds would go to education was for only a few years, and that time has expired. Or it is possible that when casino licenses have been renewed or laws updated, it was changed. Regardless of the reason, my question is why did it happen? You know, taxes put on cigarettes and other tobacco products goes to subsidize anti-tobacco efforts and yet, some pretty effective programs, such as JEL, are seeing funding cut because the folks currently in power in the Des Moines don’t like them. Maybe that is what happened. Perhaps the powers that be don’t like public education in this state, and don’t see a need to keep our roads in good repair!

I understand people that don’t want taxes raised. Some of them are a bit off the deep end, in my opinion, but one has to appreciate their perspective. However, roads are vital for commerce in our state. In recent weeks I have followed a lot of wagons and haulers full of grain headed to the elevator. We have semi tractors and trailers crisscrossing our state and we all know the shape some of our roads in this part of the state are like. And, as schools are looking ahead at budget projections, and many once again are going to have to reduce teachers because of a shortfall of funds. In my opinion, it would be well worth our time to revisit those promises made a number of years ago with those gambling proceeds. The time has come to reinvest in both our roads and our kids.