Published Online: March 18, 1998



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Lengthen the School Year, Because More Is Better

To the Editor:

John Moir argues against adding days to the school calendar, but I disagree ("Lengthening the School Year Will Hurt Schools," Feb 25, 1998). More time in school allows for more learning. Gov. Pete Wilson's proposed legislation would require school districts to provide a minimum of 180 instructional days, simply bringing California up to the national average. Japan and Germany require 200.

In fact, there are currently 180 allotted slots on the school calendar, but up to eight of these can be assigned to teacher meetings and staff-development days. Combine these noninstructional days with national holidays and what you get is serious interruption to the learning cycle. For example, in the six-week interval between Jan. 16 and Feb. 20, a time period that should contain 30 instructional days, students in my school were only in class for 24 days. And this assumes perfect attendance.

Does time on task matter? You bet. When it comes to classroom instruction, more is better. I would recommend a 210-day school year in a heartbeat if I weren't afraid my teenage son would stop speaking to me.

Carol Jago
Santa Monica High School
Santa Monica, Calif.

On History-Teacher Analysis: Simplification, Politicization

To the Editor:

Diane Ravitch draws some shocking conclusions about the state of history instruction in the United States ("Why Students Don't Know Much About History," March 4, 1998). Her conclusions are shocking not because they point out that most history teachers have not majored in history, but because of the superficial analysis and elliptical logic she uses to draw them.

It surely is unsettling, at best, if history teachers do not know history. But Ms. Ravitch's statistics hardly address this important issue. She is, for example, incredulous that 65 percent of history teachers have an undergraduate degree in social studies education. This may or may not be problematic depending on how many history courses were included in these teachers' programs of study. The point should be what teachers know, not the discipline in which they received their degrees.

Ms. Ravitch charges public officials with indifference and malpractice for failing to uphold professional standards, an issue she does not examine but infers from her degree data. In reality, all states have credentialing criteria; to teach history these generally include a significant body of coursework in history as well as some study of effective classroom pedagogy. Both appear necessary for successful history teaching. It would be more illuminating if Ms. Ravitch examined data on how many of those who teach history were licensed to teach history and what these licenses required.

Ms. Ravitch seems amazed that state officials do not make those who may want to teach history actually study history to become history teachers. She seems to believe that a defiant and petulant, rigorous, official foot stomp will solve the problem, just as a careful consumer should refuse to buy a defective toaster. In other words--through college-based incentives--we should require that more qualified young people study history. Certainly this would be an easy solution.

However, simple solutions rarely solve complex problems. The social, economic, cultural, and contextual conditions associated with teaching create a career that has limited appeal to many young people. But equally important are the deleterious effects of declarations based on simplistic analyses with hot-button truisms such as, "It is professional malpractice when state officials do not require teachers to demonstrate that they know what they are supposed to teach." No one would disagree; but multiple repetitions of the same message are pointless. Carefully crafted and creative solutions that will work are much more difficult to propose, much less implement.

I believe we can improve history, economics, psychology, geography, and civics teaching. However, experience and common sense indicate an "easy" solution is unlikely to succeed. A part of the solution may rest with colleges that prepare teachers. But genuine solutions must also recognize that what our children do and do not know is only partially the province of teachers and schools. Part of the solution must be community-based and involve mass media, local government, and business and industry. And part of the solution has to come from a citizenry that recognizes we really do get what we pay for. Schools that offer salaries in the low $20,000s do not compete well with business salaries starting in the high $30,000s and low $40,000s. Outdated materials, meager resources, poor facilities, and overcrowding all plague instruction in history, science, and all other disciplines. Finally, as a society (locally and nationally), we need to commit to our teachers to provide the time and opportunities to build genuine, secure, and dependable careers.

Every society gets the schools it deserves. Until we are willing to set and support real standards, we can get only scant and temporary solace from empty proposals that have no chance of generating genuine change.

Thomas M. Sherman
College of Human Resources
and Education
Virginia Polytechnic Institute
and State University
Blacksburg, Va.

To the Editor:

Diane Ravitch's Commentary is not that of an educational researcher, which the author's description implies, but rather is an essay with a political agenda. She has violated fundamental rules of research in basing her essay upon assumptions and titles rather than upon any scratching beneath the verbal surface.

She implies that because a teacher has a degree in education, that individual has no academic work in the subject field--in this case, history. If the degree does not indicate a major or a minor in history, she assumes that no, or little, content in history has been taken. Even the most casual study that looks beyond the titles and examines actual transcripts will find this to be blatantly false.

The students at my university may well have a major in education and a degree that indicates that. But if they have chosen "comprehensive social studies" as the field of concentration, neither the diploma nor the transcript will indicate that by name. Even a casual glance at their transcripts, however, will clearly show that they have had a total of at least 92 quarter hours of credit, out of a 190-hour degree, in the various fields of the social sciences--history, economics, geography, sociology, psychology, and political science. Of those 92 hours, at least 45 will have been in history, including a number of upper-level courses in American history, European history, and non-Western history.

Her conclusions simply do not hold water when subjected to any kind of serious examination of the actual data. I had an undergraduate major in history, another in geography, and a minor in political science with graduate work in all three. Our students who earn a degree in education with a concentration in "social studies comprehensive" receive a stronger liberal arts preparation than I did at a very fine liberal arts college.

I urge Ms. Ravitch to concentrate on good research and less on her own political agenda in her writing. I urge Education Week to identify such writers as political authors rather than as researchers who give true research a very bad name.

James K. Uphoff
Professor Emeritus
College of Education and Human Services
Wright State University
Dayton, Ohio

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