Best part of state’s new education bill is year-round school calendar

  Gov. Rick Snyder introduced an education bill last week that would either “reinvent” or “destroy” public education in Michigan, depending on your perspective. Among other things, the proposed Michigan Public Education Finance Act, authored by the Oxford Foundation, would: ∙ remove district ownership of students, who would be permitted to get all or part of their education from any public district in the state that accepts them; ∙ allow students to access online learning from across the state, with the cost paid by the state; ∙ give scholarships of $2,500 per semester, to a maximum of $10,000, to students who finish high school early; and
∙ provide for per-pupil funding to follow students to whichever districts they use to learn, with one student’s funding potentially split among multiple districts. The bill also suggests a move toward year-round schooling - a 180-day school year spread out over 12 months with a break of no more than two consecutive weeks. This would break the heart of the 10-year-old me, but here it is anyway: I hate summer break. Whenever this comes up, people rally to protect summer break. They share stories of their fond memories of yesterday - sandlot baseball, summer jobs, long afternoons at the fishing hole. Let kids be kids, they say. I’ve yet to hear a great explanation for how students benefit from a continuous three-month break from school. Most kids are bored to tears by July 4. Most kids who attend rural schools miss their friends. Fact is, most kids like school and like learning. Summer break is an enduring relic of the past: A months-long vacation built into school calendars so rural kids could help out on the family farm and affluent families could “summer” at exclusive resort destinations. For many students who live around here, summer break is daycare (if there is that much supervision), video games, junk food, cable television shows, playing outside, the Internet, more video games ... Many countries – such as England, France, Germany and Japan – take a six to eight week break in the summer and then get back to the business of learning. The Oxford Foundation plan creates short, two-week breaks throughout the year, but it might not go far enough. Some studies have shown the year-round calendar change doesn’t impact students as much as it could unless additional days of instruction are added. On average, a student loses about four to six weeks of accumulated math and reading skills over summer break. Even under the best circumstances, what a dedicated parent can teach at home, while also working full time, pales in comparison to what a child could achieve during the same time in a classroom with a good teacher. For about 100 years, academics have documented “summer learning loss.” As school becomes more challenging, the loss also becomes more profound, especially for kids from economically-challenged families. For many poor kids, summer break is a long grind filled with little relaxation and no enrichment. On average, students living in poverty suffer an even greater reading loss and will have fewer resources to use to retain their overall skills. Snyder says his aim is to help Michigan create “career-ready citizens.” He sees what some educators refuse to see - too many kids unprepared for the workforce upon their graduation and unprepared to enter college to continue their education. Yes, there are many things about public education that don’t seem to serve students - the MEAP test being the biggest offender - and those also should be addressed. We have to start somewhere. Depending on which study you want to believe, American students lag behind their international peers in math, reading and critical-thinking skills by either a little or a lot. That we lag behind those countries is not in dispute. Republicans love to use that term “American exceptionalism.” I like it too, when it is accurate. When it comes to education, we’re just not. We’re average at best. We need to admit this to get better. I don’t love everything in the proposed education plan, but I was happy to note at least someone else sees that we can no longer afford the luxury that is summer break. We don’t need a break. We need to get to work.  
Dave Clark is editor in chief of theHerald Review. Email him at dclark@pioneergroup.com