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Vicki Abeles Headshot

Why Christie's School 'Fix' Is Misguided

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As if getting Garden State residents into one jam wasn't enough, Gov. Chris Christie is calling for a longer school day to make New Jersey students more "competitive."

I couldn't agree more with the idea, espoused by Christie in his State of the State speech, that students in this century need and deserve something more than our old-school education system is giving them. But Christie's proposed fix is a simplistic and misguided solution to a nuanced and complex problem.

He assumes, as many school districts and policymakers have long mistakenly held, that more is better -- that more time in school equals more learning. I've found no compelling research that supports the proposition that a longer school day improves educational outcomes. 

Students who are engaged, curious, involved and passionate about what's happening in their classrooms learn more. But keeping today's unengaged, over-tested students in the classroom longer? That won't necessarily fix anything, and it may make the problems New Jersey is facing worse. If we really want to improve education, we need to reinvent the school day before we talk about making it longer.

It's true that we've utterly failed to update our education model since we were an agrarian-industrial society at the turn of the 20th century. The school day is segmented into subjects as segregated from each other as stations on an assembly line. Memorization, not critical thought, masquerades as learning. Students as young as seven or eight are subjected to near-daily tests to quantify their every ingestion of information. Even devoted teachers who strive to nurture each child's personal passions and strengths find themselves constrained by our assessment-obsessed system, which values sterile rankings over hearts and minds.

Where are creativity, innovation and passion supposed to emerge in such a rigid routine? This is not what life looks like in the real world -- only in school.

Christie aims to double down on an outmoded model. But the proper fix to this problem is not adding more of the same. We need to reshape school from top to bottom, changing the way we approach learning, measure student progress, support teachers, approach learning and challenge and organize classrooms. The modern world demands daring thinkers and creative problem solvers who are prepared to, say, collaboratively tackle a tricky design challenge, rather than to frenetically produce the same mountain of soulless reports that everyone else does. A childhood and education rich in exploration, challenge, originality and time to play is what truly nurtures such skills. And that's no less than our children deserve.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has pointed out that U.S. students spend 25 to 30 percent less time in school than many other countries. That's an ominous-sounding statistic. But consider Finland, a country with one of the most successful track records in the world at improving real outcomes for students. The Finns actually spend less time in school, take fewer tests and have much less homework than we do in America. Not only do Finnish children outperform peers from most countries in math, science and reading, but the country boasts perhaps a more notable accomplishment: one of the narrowest achievement gaps in the world.

No study shows that butt-in-seat time significantly increases student learning -- at least not the kind of deep, meaningful learning that really matters, the kind of intellectual and emotional growth that fuels a full life. Nor will it create more equitable classrooms for our nation's diverse students -- if anything, excessive desk-time will only widen existing gaps. 

There is, however, plenty of research that shows what does help our kids in the long run: a rich curriculum that includes arts and physical education, time for play and rest, and adequate sleep, just to name a few. These essential ingredients are too often undervalued by our performance-driven education system. Classes have become a series of drill and kill exercises. And as a mom and a citizen, I am deeply concerned that a longer school day will only exacerbate the stress and sleep deprivation that are already fraying our children's health.

I am open to the possibility that a longer, well-designed school day could be part of a new vision for education. But it would require major changes, such as cutting homework, increasing time for play, physical educations and the arts, deepening the kinds of learning challenges we give our students, and significantly reducing the pressure on kids and teachers to prepare for standardized tests.

Christie has said of his plan that the "details will follow." But the details, we know from the research and from the experiences of real students, parents and teachers, are what matter most. Before any policymaker or politician calls for a change in education, he or she needs to include input of community stakeholders -- parents, teachers and students -- and really envision what the details of that plan look like on a daily basis, and in the lives of children, teachers and families.

I fear that Christie's plan is a poorly thought-out distraction from the political mess he's in. Our kids deserve better.

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This post originally appeared on WashingtonPost.com.