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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Overcast
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Barack Obama is right to keep kids in class longer
Yes, we can teach more

How hard is it to find time for social studies? Let me tell you a story.

Recently, the sixth-graders I teach had been studying geography. It took me weeks to find a solid, 45-minute period where they could finish making maps of the school grounds.

For a while, we skipped social studies every Monday while students took standardized tests. It got cut when school let out early for teachers' professional development. Then one day, after a school assembly ran long and I had to administer a math skills assessment, our social studies class was whittled down to just 15 minutes. I threw in the towel. Geography would have to wait.

A few weeks ago, President Obama floated the idea of adding time to the school day or extending the school year. I was delighted. So were most of the teachers I know.

In my district, teachers and administrators work hard to provide students with the best education possible. But there's simply not enough time in the day to get to everything they'll need to succeed in a global economy.

The daily schedule is so tight my sixth-graders have no morning or afternoon recess. They get music for only 30 minutes a week, art for just one hour. They spend less than an hour each week working on their computer skills. The schedule is so crowded that the sixth-grade teachers decided to teach social studies for just one month, before switching to science. There's not time in the day for both.

This problem is not unique to my small rural school. During my time student teaching in the Madison school district, I saw the same thing. And since most districts prioritize reading, writing and math, social studies and science classes get short shrift.

My sixth-graders are supposed to learn about world history and ancient civilizations, the wonders of the solar system and the laws of physics. And they're supposed to do it in 30 minutes a day or less.

Obama's suggestion to extend the school year was not a fully developed proposal. The president and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, are more focused on other reforms, like merit pay for teachers and funding for No Child Left Behind.

But adding two weeks to the school calendar strikes me as a simple fix. It won't solve all the problems with the school system, but it might let everyone breathe a little easier during the day.

The typical U.S. school year is 180 days. The kids finish in early June and don't come back until September. A hundred years ago, this was a useful arrangement, since it allowed children to work on their family's farms. Now, kids are more likely to spend their summers playing video games and watching cable TV.

And the long summer break makes it harder for students to retain knowledge. When they return in the fall, they must spend time relearning school routines and reviewing last year's lessons. In my district, students' standardized test results often drop after summer vacation. Their highest scores come during the winter, when they are in the heart of the school year.

Fox News was quick to attack Obama for his suggestion. A news headline on the Fox website warned that school in the summer would have "dire economic effects." The tourism industry would suffer, since families could no longer take lengthy vacations. Summer camps would close for lack of enrollment. And school districts would be crippled by the cost of paying overtime to teachers and retrofitting schools with air conditioning.

That's one way of looking at it. I prefer to think that a more educated workforce, with the skills to compete globally, will ultimately improve the economy.

When I had my sixth-graders read the news article about Obama's proposal, they acted like Fox: They talked over each other in their eagerness to knock it down.

Add hours to the school day? "We'll never see our families!" was the common refrain.

They also worried about losing time for extracurricular activities like football or dance. And they told me I'd have to stop giving homework, because they'd never have time to do it if they had to stay in school until 5 p.m.

As for spending their summer in school? One student showed her opinion of that idea by drawing a mustache and beard on Obama's news picture.

Still, the class had a rousing, energetic discussion. They eagerly read the news story, wrote down comments and questions, and debated the merits of the idea with their peers and me. It was an ideal social studies lesson.

Too bad I had to cut it short when we ran out of time.

Isthmus alum Vikki Kratz lives in Madison and teaches in a small school district in Dane County.

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