frank_talk (2005-47)

Education on the Farm

Those students have to be out for the summer to haul hay

by Frank Cagle

The number of farms in this country continues to decline. The number of family farms, as a percentage of total U.S. employment, is almost an infinitesimal number. Why then, do farmers still determine the structure of our education system?

We have overcrowded schools, and Knox County is in the process of spending $40 million or more to build another high school, this one in Hardin Valley. Yet Knox County, like all other counties, has high schools that have empty classrooms—three months out of the year. Counties with overcrowded schools could have a three-semester plan in which those empty classrooms could be used in summer, relieving classroom space the other two semesters. Instead of two semesters of 90 days each, we could have three semesters at 86 days each.

But we don’t do it because there is always the chance we may go back to the time when all those kids in West Knox County will need to be out in the summertime to cut tobacco, plant corn and haul hay.

If you offered a three-semester system and required a child to attend any two semesters per year, you would be surprised to discover how many families would like a fall or spring semester vacation (skiing anyone?).

Schools start at 8 or 8:30 a.m., when studies show teenagers are groggy and not at their best. Then the school day ends in mid-afternoon, allowing high school students to get home in time to get into all kinds of trouble before the folks get home from work.

That’s because the school day used to end at 3:30 p.m. so kids could get home and get the milking done before dark. God forbid that school should start at 9:30 a.m. and go until 5 p.m. It would violate the laws of nature.

Home-schoolers are finding that the Internet provides long-distance learning opportunities in which a child can work at his or her own pace. They can do the work in the mornings and spend the afternoon at the art museum or the zoo. In Florida, there are school systems that are experimenting with school-directed home schooling. The children interact with a teacher at various points, via e-mail and the Internet, and get an education without ever setting foot into an overcrowded classroom.

The point I’m trying to make is that we run our education system with very little real change, as if it were 1905 instead of 2005. It’s costing us millions of dollars to haul Little Johnny down to the Little Red Schoolhouse for 180 days out of 365. We have to do it the way we’ve always done it, and no one seems willing to even consider doing it another way.

Actually, I was just being facetious about farmers running the school system. The school system is actually run on a cycle that supports sports teams. We do it the way we do it because we have to have football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. (And discourage soccer at every opportunity, year round.) Never mind the minority of students that actually participate in these sports at school. But then you have the problem of spring proms, senior trips and being sure to graduate with your “class”— people you won’t see again until the 20-year reunion.

We always like to talk about educational excellence and how we really want kids to learn. Well, if we do, let’s take another look at those classrooms, sitting empty all summer. With a three-semester system you could let academically gifted students go to school year round. They could graduate in three years instead of four; they could already be taking college courses when they would ostensibly be seniors. They would also be freeing up space for other students in high schools that have over 2,000 students milling around the commons every day.

Those kids who just didn’t quite get it this academic year? Well, they could go all three semesters to catch up.

There would be some additional costs involved. You would have to be sure the schools all have air conditioning. Such a plan would require paying some teachers to teach year round, but not all of them. You would find a lower level of participation during the summer. Most of them could choose to work two out of three semesters. You could avoid spending $40 million ever so often to build more classrooms. You could also have a strong school-directed long distance learning program that allows kids that choose it to stay home.

You could probably close some unneeded schools instead of having to build more.

Bottom line? We don’t have to do it the way we’ve always done it. The school year based on an agricultural society of 200 years ago is insane. Blow up tradition? We can create new traditions.

But educational innovation up against football, proms and tradition probably doesn’t stand a chance.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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