Six Hundred Million Years in K-12

(This rerun is in honor of the beginning of the new school year…indeed, many kids have now already been in school for 3 weeks or even more.)

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 LottBut 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.

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

  1. In comparison, please note the remainder of the lives of these students who have spent their 600,000 years in K-12. That time more than outweighs the 600k, and it will be spent individually in a wasted life that is stunted from the inadequate education provided.
    More years wasted after graduation is the point I so miserably tried to express. Teachers have classes they must get through, students have the remainder of their lives THEY must get through.

  2. Summer vacation is attributed to the agricultural society of the 19th century when mandatory school attendance began. I probably had a lot to do with the absence of air conditioning. When I was a boy in school, we began after Labor Day and finished in early June. My son’s kids start next week and finish in early June so there is not a lot of difference. In Chicago, I believe my nephew’s kids are already back in school and finish in May. The kids get a lot of extra holidays during the school year and there are “teachers’ days” and the like. I gave up on public schools in the early 70s although those here in Orange County were allegedly much better than those in central cities. I could afford it but I do worry about my grandchildren. Fortunately, they have parents who read and expose them to traditional American culture. Also limiting TV is very important.

    One of my daughters, who does not yet have children but plans to, expressed concern that school districts in some states allow the teaching of Intelligent Design along with evolution. I asked her if she would trade that for the ability to read and calculate.

  3. Tomw…’tis true. The 600,000,000 years is only a down payment on the total human waste.

    If the Republican leadership were smarter, they would make a major point of the way in which children’s lives are sacrificed to the Moloch of today’s public school system…to the thing that has been called the BLOB, the aggregate of mindless administrators, fad-following “ed schools,” grasping teachers’ unions, etc etc.

    The harm done by Moloch / the Blob is, of course, greatest to those who the Democrats say they particularly care about.

  4. Without defending Orszag, or his proposal, I would like to translate what he is saying indirectly into something more direct: Poor kids often have lousy parents who don’t give them any academic help or encouragement during summers, and feed them too much junk food. Consequently, those kids fall further behind during summers, and get fat.

    So Orszag thinks that we should keep those kids away from their parents during day time for almost the entire year.

    Your argument about time wasted in class rooms is true — in general — but doesn’t directly address Orszag’s argument (which he had to disguise, for obvious political reasons).

    (I don’t have any grand solutions to the problem of poor parents that are practical, politically. But I do agree that it is a serious, and growing, problem here in the United States.)

  5. Jim…but in many cases, the schools are so chaotic that little if any learning goes on there.

    The Obama administration is about to make things much worse by imposing racial quota on school discipline. So that if Billy jumps up in the middle of class and announces that the teacher is an “ugly bitch” and that he doesn’t have to listen to all this *****, the principal, before suspending him, will have to check on the suspensions-to-date for whatever ethnic group Billy is a member of…and if the number is too high, let Billy off with his 237th “warning” of the year.

  6. Summer vacation, as I remember it, was one The Great Wonders of Childhood, full of adventure and freedom and baseball and all day bike rides to the reservoir. Leave it alone, it’s a great American tradition.

    And privatize the entire school system. We’d get a much better product at far less cost.

Comments are closed.