Six Hundred Million Years in K-12

Peter Orszag, who was Obama’s budget director and is now a vice chairman at Citigroup, thinks it would be a good idea to cut back on summer school vacations for kids, arguing that this would both improve academics and reduce obesity.

I’m with Jeremy Lott: But to look at the vast wasteland that is American public education — the poor teaching, the awful curriculum, the low standards, the anemic achievement, the institutional resistance to needed reform — and say that the real problem is summer vacation takes a special sort of mind.

I wrote about the war on summer vacation back in 2006, after stopping at a store in Georgia on the first day of August and discovering that this was the first day of school for the local children. In this post, I said:

The truth is, most public K-12 schools make very poor use of the time of their students. They waste huge proportions of the millions of hours which have been entrusted to them–waste them through the mindless implementation of fads and theories, waste them through inappropriate teacher-credentialing processes, waste them through refusal to maintain high standards of performance and behavior.

When an organization or institution proves itself to be a poor steward of the resources that have been entrusted to it, the right answer is not to give it more resources to waste.

Orszag and similar thinkers seem to have no concept that good things can happen to children’s development outside of an institutional setting. Plenty of kids develop and pursue interests in science, literature, art, music…plus, there is plenty to be learned simply by interacting with friends in an unstructured environment.

Would the world be better off if Steve Wozniak and Jeri name only two of many, many examples..had their noses held constantly to the school grindstone rather than having time to develop their interests in electronics?

Lewis E Lawes, who was warden of Sing Sing prison from 1915 to 1941, wrote an interesting book titled Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing. The title refers to the aggregate lengths of the sentences of the men in the prison at a typical particular point in time.


Twenty-five hundred men saddled with an aggregate of twenty thousand years! Within such cycles worlds are born, die, and are reborn. That span has witnessed the evolution of the intelligence of mortal man. And we know that twenty thousand years have seen nations run their courses, perish, and give way to their successors. Twenty thousand years in my keeping. What will they evolve?

Following the same approach, the aggregate length of the terms to be spent in K-12 schools by their current students is more than 600,000,000 years. What proportion of this time is actually used productively?

And how many of the officials who supervise and run the public schools, and the ed-school professors who influence their policies, think about this 600,000,000 years in the same serious and reflective way that Lawes thought about the 20,000 years under his supervision? Some do, of course, but a disturbing percentage of them seem to be simply going through the bureaucratic motions.

And the politicians and officials of the Democratic Party are the last people in the world who are ever going to call them on it.

17 thoughts on “Six Hundred Million Years in K-12”

  1. There is blather from the elites that summer vacation is a residual from the agricultural past of the US. Summer was for farm work. Well, I grew up in Chicago although my family had a farm about 60 miles south of the city. The only time we went there was in the fall. Hunting season. Many parents, including mine, didn’t mind getting rid of the kids for a couple of weeks or a month during summer vacation. I got sent to Wisconsin to spend several weeks with family and friends. Some summers my father rented a cottage for the month of August. One summer about 28 years ago, I rented a cottage with my sister’s family in Grand Beach, which was sort of the Chicago Irish summer resort when I was a kid. The kids had a wonderful time and the adults enjoyed the time, as well.

    There are summer camps for kids who don’t have the family assets that I had. If school was more worthwhile, say the way it was in 1948, I wouldn’t mind so much. Of course, in those days there was no air conditioning so that made a good excuse. Now, school seems more designed for babysitting than learning. Even there, the schools in poor neighborhoods are too chaotic for learning anyway. What ever happened to reform school ?

    The true story is all about ADA, Average Daily Attendance, which means money from the state. Now that California is going broke, Jerry Brown is talking about shortening the school year as some sort of threat. Democrats are running out of reasons for more taxes.

  2. Just get rid of the monopoly that is the public school – unionized teacher system.

    Because that is the problem.

  3. People that home school take less time to teach more; those old one-room schoolhouses produced people that could do math, read and write – when the teacher was taking on 8 grades at once. I went to school in double classrooms – the advantage was that if you wanted to, you could listen to and even take quizzes with the next one. It helped push us a bit. Things aren’t going to improve until we stop selecting for the most ideologically conformist, SAT challenged, risk-averse, bureaucratic and time-wasting applicants to education colleges. Teachers at the same pay as they are now that were given fewer laws and more freedom, expected to reach higher standards and enjoy the interplay of the classroom – in other words, if our schools could be like the private ones today – people would want to be teachers, not feel they have to settle for being ones. I know the difference in the commitment of our friends who teach in each – and, frankly, my colleagues in junior college and my husband’s at a research school. The ones that really are enjoying teaching are first of all those teaching in good private schools and then my colleragues.

  4. “The ones that really are enjoying teaching are first of all those teaching in good private schools and then my colleagues.”

    I found the teachers in private schools were great and really interested in the kids. I know some parents are a pain to private school teachers but I left them alone. The only time I ever intervened was with my second son who was (is) big and handsome and lazy. I told the assistant principal that I did not want him to be allowed extracurricular activities unless he had at least a B average. I also told him he couldn’t get a driver’s license by the same criteria.

    He outwaited us. He would be picked up by girls in BMW convertibles for dates and we had to drive him to stuff. I finally gave up when he was 17. The school ignored me since his senior class only had 25 kids. He was in school plays and played football because they needed him.

    Interestingly, his graduating class is still close although they are all about 42. They still socialize although we were not in the same league financially with a lot of the families.

    The teaching and nursing professions have suffered from the fact that young women have so many more choices now. The SAT and grade levels of education school students is the lowest it has ever been. Merit pay would do a lot plus the big school districts have far too many non-teaching employees. I’d give the money to the teachers if they’d get rid of the union.

    The little high school in Odell, Illinois, where my great grandfather lived about 1900, was closed and all the kids sent to a big unified high school 30 years ago. This was in spite of the fact that Odell High School had three national merit scholars from a town of 600.


  5. MK…”The little high school in Odell, Illinois, where my great grandfather lived about 1900, was closed and all the kids sent to a big unified high school 30 years ago. This was in spite of the fact that Odell High School had three national merit scholars from a town of 600.”

    The pursuit of economies of scale is fallacious in many situations, and I think this is particularly true of schools. Why would it be a good idea to have a high school with more students than employees in a whole shift at an auto assembly plant?

  6. Any time spent outside of school is time in which they are not being indoctrinated, or in which the indoctrination may wear off or be contradicted.

    They have to be indoctrinated all day, every day.

    Otherwise, we will never reach the goal of being exactly like North Korea.

  7. “Why would it be a good idea to have a high school with more students than employees in a whole shift at an auto assembly plant?”

    Some of the bullying and other pathologies in schools come from these enormous factory type schools. Small schools are far more effective in my opinion.

    I still wonder what happened to reform schools.

  8. I had a stretch of nearly two months when my daughter was about eight or nine, when she was home-tutored by my parents. (Long leave Stateside between overseas tours and a concurrent TDY) It amazed me, how few hours of the day she actually needed to keep up her schoolwork. But when I did the math – the attention of a single teacher split between fifteen or twenty kids in a DOD elementary school class, for six hours a day … compared to the attention of one adult on one kid for two or three hours a day. Which was the more intense learning experience?
    When and if my daughter has children, I’m home-schooling them myself.

  9. Oh, and the virtues of a small high school – which I knew first-hand, as my daughter whent to a small Catholic girl’s school – is that in a smaller school, everybody has a better chance to do everything, to try out for any school team that the kid is interested in. There isn’t that cutthroat competition among studens for sports teams. Rather, the teams are competing to get students to participate as part of their team. Wasn’t there that story a couple of years ago, of some tiny little mid-western high school marching band … where the entire student body WAS the marching band?
    Surely that is healthier than a ginormous consolidated high school that displays all the pathologies of Lord of the Flies combined with an American gulag.

  10. My brother’s grandchildren are going to the same high school we did – K-12 in one school. It served less than a hundred in grade school and less than a hundred in high school when we went – probably the divisions are somewhat different because I can’t imagine those small country schools that fed into ours in 9th grade still existing. His grandson did Ivy League entrance on the the ACT; he sent a picture of four of the couples for the prom. They are beautiful and happy and healthy.

    Everyone was in everything – in our class, I was was pretty much told not to sing but just to stand there since I was terrible but they weren’t leaving me out of the mixed chorus; the band never played at the games (so there was no subgroup of the band nerds) because everyone was needed on the field (so there was no subgroup of jocks). Of course there were athletic stars and people with lovely voices – but that’s different. Handled right, this is true diversity and it teaches much. Handled poorly, it can be suffocating. Out of our 25, half a dozen got advanced degrees, three got Ph.D.’s. This is the kind of thing (ask my children), I can go on about for hours. I think I was less sophisticated when I went off to college because of it, but as I’ve gotten older, I realize I would have been less sophisticated whatever I came out of. There I could bicycle everywhere and often felt quite free.

  11. I prefer summer vacation, but was intrigued by Gladwell’s argument in ‘Outliers’ that the break definitely benefits those children whose parents engage them during the summer.

  12. This is a good idea for anyone who benefits from a public school environment more than their home environment.

    In general, kids from poor (low socio-economic-status), unintelligent, or Non-Asian Minority (black, Hispanic) households will be net winners. Average kids will do more or less the same, but their parents get daycare paid for by the community. High socio-economic status, smart, and asian/white kids will be net losers.

  13. Tdaxp…”This is a good idea for anyone who benefits from a public school environment more than their home environment.”

    It is, of course, precisely in those areas where the most non-beneficial home environments are to be found that the government schools are also most dysfunctional.

  14. “It is, of course, precisely in those areas where the most non-beneficial home environments are to be found that the government schools are also most dysfunctional.”

    True, but not necessarily important here. In the worst situations you are dealing with a completely non-educational home environment, v. a completely non-educational home environment with something approaching nutrition. In simply deprived areas, you at least have access to individuals with some higher education.

    The advantages cease once you get to upper middle SES because a self-motivated student can easily learn more in informal settings or on his own than in pretty much any non-individualized curriculum, a lot of the time.

  15. For low SES/lumpenproletariat schools, simply providing a quiet place to sleep can make them a better environment than staying at home.

  16. The books author worried about 20,000 years in Sing-Sing. David Foster worried about the 600,000,000 years spent in public education.

    I worry about the 600,000,000 years times the rest of their life, when they didn’t learn beans in school. Their whole LIFE is wasted unless they happen to luck into some situation where they may flourish.
    I can’t figure out the number, but many live 3-5 times their time in school or ‘supervised’ education.
    As an aside, perhaps students need some time with their PARENTS fulfilling the duties and obligations of rearing children as a bit more foremost in their priority. Some time to UN-educate the programmed responses and attitudes inculcated by some teachers who cannot resist the urge to ‘benefit’ their students with their philosophy, their politics and general ‘progressive’ feelings.

  17. p.s. Living in a Georgia county where public education is slated to start very soon in the first week(s) of August.
    Seems to me, there is an exaggeration in the growth of ‘things’ that need to be taught, and it serves the teachers as a good excuse as to “why Johnny can’t read”, a title of a book published years ago. Not to mention do math or write complete sentences.
    The current argument here is about Charter schools, some run by for-profit corporations, and the siphoning of school funds to educate ‘others’, I guess.

    My personal take as a national solution:
    Your child may go to any school within the school district, city, county, state. Transportation not necessarily provided. If some schools are empty, shut them down. If some are overcrowded, enlarge them. If the teachers can place their children wherever they want, then so can the parents financing the debacle.

Comments are closed.