President Obama wants a longer school year. Great. But make sure that students spend part of that year learning from and about their communities.
President Obama’s recent suggestion about lengthening the school year in the United States met with some kneejerk objections. But basically, it is a good idea.
In a global economy where other countries are investing heavily in quality education and where children attend school for up to 250 days a year, compared with the standard of 180 days in the U.S., it seems logical to assume that a longer school year could help children learn more.
That is, it will help them learn more if the conditions in the school and community are right.
A longer school year is hardly an incremental reform, but it does not, in and of itself, represent systemic changes that are desperately needed to improve the quality of education in rural areas. If we’re going to lengthen the school year, let’s talk about real changes that will not only improve student achievement, but also build rural communities capable of participating effectively in the new green economy.
Did I hear a call for some suggestions?
For starters, let’s go back to the idea of rural community schools. As the president suggests, schools need to be safe places where students can find friends and academic help during the evening and weekends.
Schools should be places that encourage students to be interested in their civic duties — to build a better community where government and citizens respect and understand the community’s place in the local ecology. Schools need to become active partners in fostering civil political discourse by being models of democratic discussion both at school board meetings and in the classroom.
Rural schools could start by encouraging students to be interested in their individual and community roles in building a better place to live. Schools, working with parents and other community members, need to build empathetic social and environmental relationships that bind communities together with a sense of place.
In other words, meet your state’s standards, but use the community as a classroom. Knowledge needed for passing tests is important, but students can acquire that knowledge by doing. Engage students in hands-on projects with community members to build understanding, practical knowledge, and leadership skills. The knowledge and skills of adults can be used as great teaching tools with students while also improving life in the community.
And don’t forget to leave time for outdoor play so that students can exercise while being exposed to changing seasons and life in their surroundings. Creative, self-directed play, coupled with formal, guided environmental education, can foster closer relationships with playmates and nature.
There are all sorts of ways schools can help students find a place in what’s being called the “green economy.” That begins by recognizing that the environment is more than a series of scientific and technical problems to be solved. The environment is a community trust. So why not build the curriculum to educate students to view environmental problems from scientific, technical, and community perspectives. Help students understand how take advantage of green opportunities in their own back yard and in a rapidly changing world. Schools need to work in and for their communities to make them more sustainable.
Schools cannot overemphasize the importance of environmental issues in a world that is becoming more crowded and strapped for resources. A green curriculum helps build knowledge about the community in its local, national, and global environments, something that is essential if we are to move toward sustainability at all levels: personal, family, community, regional, national, and global.
Finally, schools should teach students that they can be self-employed in the green economy — call them “earthtrepreneurs” — as well as be employed by other companies. Schools need to become active partners in green community economic development.
Increased funding and the move toward standardized testing over the past 30 years or so have been mostly disappointing, hardly meeting the great promises that were made for student achievement. Gains have been marginal for the poor and most minorities, and many rural schools with limited resources have failed to make adequate progress.
Efforts to teach strictly to the test have isolated schools and students from their communities in many ways. We simply haven’t done a good enough job teaching students how things work in their own back yards.
The Obama proposal for a longer school year could improve the country’s education system, but it does not go far enough. It can be better justified if classroom performance builds better, more sustainable communities across the country.
High standards and expectations are important for quality education, but they have to be coupled with improved teaching and learning conditions that challenge students to meet the environmental needs of their communities and the country. The challenge of the twenty-first century is building sustainable rural communities with healthy environments and prosperous individuals, active civic and social life, and an economy that is kind to the environment.
Schools can help with all of the above.
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.