Mary Sanchez

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, like his boss, President Barack Obama, is fond of invoking the idea that we can fix public education in the U.S. by tweaking some weaknesses in its basic structure.

One such defect is the "short" school year: fall to spring classes, three months off in the summer. Duncan likes to assert that our 180-day school year is a throwback to the agrarian past, and since children are no longer necessary for farm labor, we ought to lengthen the school year.

The origins of summer vacation, in reality, also had to do with concerns about teaching pupils in the stifling heat and the belief that children needed long breaks for their mental health. It's hard to imagine American life not organized around the rhythm imposed by summer vacation.

But let's consider Duncan's ideas on their merits. In his many public appearances of late, Duncan has argued that the most rudimentary aspects of the U.S. public educational system must change. He says parents must play a greater role in demanding more strenuous standards and utilizing schools fully year-round, including the hours they are open.

Within the next four to six years, Duncan says, a million teachers will retire. He calls this "an amazing opportunity." If the nation commits to altering how it chooses, rewards and retains teachers -- only the best and brightest need apply -- the U.S. educational system can be remade within the next few decades.

Clearly, change needs to happen. Our students are falling behind their peers even in lesser-developed nations. To become competitive again, our schools have to focus more heavily toward the STEM studies: science, technology, engineering and math. And we don't have the teaching staff to meet that goal.

Duncan has pointed to a problem that all teachers know: The first month back from summer break is often spent re-teaching competencies children lost during the summer. So he's been urging groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America not to build new facilities, but rather to utilize schools.

He envisions schools as centers for communities, with all sorts of classes, tutoring and extracurricular activities offered (many by groups outside the public school system) before and after the main school hours and, presumably, during what is now the off-time of summer.

It sounds like a nice idea, but how are school districts supposed to stretch the school year and make it more rigorous when many of them are struggling to find the resources to offer art, gym and recess?

Yes, it will be tough, Duncan admits. But parents must demand it. Top down change ordered from Washington will not revamp the U.S. education system, he says; parents will.

In a chat with group of moms gathered by Parenting Magazine, Duncan relayed a conversation Obama had with leaders in South Korea, one of the nations whose children have been out-scoring ours. Apparently, parental apathy is not a problem there. The government is consistently pushed by parents (even the poorest parents) to raise the quality of educational offerings and demand more rigorous study, at younger and younger grades.

"I wish our parents were more demanding," Duncan told the moms. "I wish parents were beating down my door."

Which part of that is more implausible? That Arne Duncan wants to be harried by parents, or that parents would believe that a federal agency could be a source of help in tackling problems at their kids' schools?

The fact is we don't really have an education system in the United States -- certainly not in the sense of South Korea's centralized system. We have a balkanized patchwork of bureaucratic fiefdoms. A handful of these throughout the country are responsive to the active parents Duncan wishes for. Most are not. Some of them, typically in large cities, are laden with layers of unaccountable administrators that no parent could ever hope to penetrate. When it comes to education, concerned parents in this country vote with their feet, moving their families to better school districts -- if they can. They do it not because it's the best way, but often because it's the only way to get results.

American public education is fundamentally inequitable. Your social class is very good predictor of what quality of public school is available to your kids. That is the problem Arne Duncan needs to tackle. Until he does, everything else is just pretty talk.

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Solving Our School Problems Not a Matter of Gimmicky Ideas