Six Hundred Million Years in K-12

(Millions of kids are already headed back to school, making it an appropriate time to again rerun this post from 2012)

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.

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

  1. “[To] say that the real problem is summer vacation takes a special sort of mind”: I agree.

    “… this would both improve academics and reduce obesity”: he forgot to say that it would promote World Peace.

  2. That would allow Common Core to suck more IQ points out of them. I was pretty neutral on Common Core until now since my kids are all out of school but there is more information coming out. For example,

    Stanford emeritus math professor R. James Milgram has emerged as a prominent critic. And in a Journal op-ed today Berkeley emeritus math professor and National Academy of Sciences member Marina Ratner writes: “The Common Core fails any comparison with the standards of high-achieving countries, just as they fail compared to the old California standards. They are lower in the total scope of learned material, in the depth and rigor of the treatment of mathematical subjects, and in the delayed and often inconsistent and incoherent introductions of mathematical concepts and skills.”

    She adds, “For California, the adoption of the Common Core standards represents a huge step backward which puts an end to its hard-won standing as having the top math standards in the nation. The Common Core standards will move the U.S. even closer to the bottom in international ranking.”

    My grandkids go back to school before Labor Day and I don;t see the value of it. I suspect schools are babysitting services for working parents.

  3. Summer vacation was the great benefit of childhood. It’s when we did all of our real playing. Fishing, biking, baseball, swimming, exploring, building bike ramps and tree houses. Life is more than academics.

    Maybe obesity is a result of too much childhood institutionalization. That, and keeping kids monitored and in the yard and safe. I learned to navigate on my own in the world as a child.

    Some important lessons I learned:

    1. Be careful with dangerous things:
    * Firecracker fuses sometimes go off much faster than you expect.
    * Molten metal is really hot.
    * Solvents burn your skin.
    * Power tools can cut you before you even realize they’re no longer under control.
    * Thin sandy rock ledges can be really slippery.

    In short, listen to that little voice that says, hey, this could be dangerous/deadly/painful/ruinous. Give the situation a little thought first.

    2. Many things take skill:
    * Catching a hard hit ground ball is a skill. Do it wrong and you miss it, or worse, get hit in the face.
    * Swimming is a skill. Do it wrong and you can (almost) drown. Being around someone who can’t swim can also get you (almost) drowned.
    * Riding a bike (and later, driving a car) is a skill. Riding a bike under lots of conditions taught me to judge speed, braking distance, the traffic situation, watch for objects in your path, predict the movement of pedestrians. I would never have learned that in my yard or right outside the house.
    * Playing cards for money with people much more skillful than you will get you cleaned out.
    * Taking a bike out at dawn with your friends to a reservoir ten miles away is a tremendous adventure. Not taking anything to eat or any money will leave you really hungry and thirsty around noon. Planning ahead is a skill. Usually hard learned.
    * Skills are only learned by doing those things a lot. Skilled people are often tremendously beneficial in providing services to people without those skills. Saves you that whole, years long learning curve.

    3. Having fun is beneficial:
    * Lying in the grass and watching the clouds can clear your mind.
    * Wild raspberries taste better than the ones in the store for some reason.
    * When you’ve been out in the heat all day, you really appreciate your air conditioned house.
    * I learned to love disorganized sports. Kids organizing their own football games or baseball games have much more opportunity to play, learn to accept and work around each others weaknesses, apply rules in a fair way, work out imperfect conditions, they have more fun and have more opportunity to shine and experience the game.

    I worked with a woman who spent years living with her husband, a writer, and their kids on a sailboat. They home-schooled their three children. All got accepted into college.

  4. Kids these days are far too organized but that is what parents do. Little League and girls soccer dominate my younger son’s time off and I suppose it brings parents and kids together. I would have fainted if my father showed up at my baseball game.

    Unstructured play is less common now and I don’t think this situation is helpful for kids’ development. I live in an affluent suburb that does not lend itself to walking and kids tend to stay close to home, not just because of parents’ worries. In California, kids are outdoors nearly all the time, though. I grew up in Chicago and we had indoor games in the era before TV. We had to have something to do in winter or bad weather. When my boys were young, I built a whole model railroad layout for them. That was something I always wanted as a child and they never played with it. They were always outdoors.

    When I was in 8th grade we had all day poker games with play money. If we got cleaned out, we would walk to the dime store and buy more play money. It did teach me to play poker and I used the skill in college.

    Orange County kids all drive at 16 and most have cars. You should see the parking lots at high schools. I insisted that my kids have a B average to get a license. My younger son was not too interested in academics and evaded most of my efforts to force him to study. He was big and good looking and by 17 he had girls picking him up for dates. I gave up and let him drive. He is a fireman and has the nicest house of any of them.

  5. Sorry to be unpopular with the same song over again, but whatever the fault of our schools, they remain the best in the world. Maybe there are wonderful things we could do to improve them, but the South Koreans really aren’t eating our lunch because they work their kids so hard, and the Finns because they don’t work the kids so hard. Asian Americans outscore Asians (except maybe Singapore); Caucasian Americans outscore Europe; Hispanic Americans outscore all Latin American countries; American blacks outscore all Caribbean and African nations by a lot. It’s just that the base scores of those groups vary, and we have them all, unlike, say, Poland or Japan.

    Also, schools used to teach stuff that was just as dumb when I was there, 50’s-70’s. Staying in for recess and after school for extra penmanship lessons, anyone? Reading out loud to the class one by one, a paragraph of the social studies book? Good times. And don’t dare have an attentional problem, or Aspergers, or any eccentricity at all. My brother is now a college professor. His special program in elementary school was to sit in the hall. Humiliation of children was routine.

    As for Common Core, it won’t be half as good as its supporters claim nor half as bad as its critics claim. It’s an education program – those never affect anything very much. We get all worked up because we love our children and want the best for them, and so overreact to what the schools are doing.

  6. AVI…surely we should have higher expectations for the level of learning achieved by (say) a Hispanic kid in an American school funded at $12,000 to $20,000 per year…and with the kid pretty likely having enough to eat every day…as compared with a possibly-malnourished Hispanic kid somewhere in South America in a village school which is barely scraping by (and without “benefit” of teachers who have 4 years or more of college education, recurring “continuing education,” etc.)

    Also, many American middle-class, lower-middle-class, and upper-middle-class families are making great financial sacrifices to either send their kids to private school or move to a more expensive neighborhood with better schools. Surely they’re not all just being silly?

  7. “American blacks outscore all Caribbean and African nations by a lot. ”

    I’m not sure this is a valid statistic. I see lots of black medical students and most are from upper middle class home OR are from other countries in Africa or the West Indies. Over the past ten years, I have had a dozen black medical students in my groups. Three were American. One had a hard time talking to white adults (He got along with his age group OK) and I learned his parents were Bay Area Black Panther members. I worked with him and got him squared away finally. Another played water polo in high school and college. That says it all. The third was from a middle class family in LA and tried to live at home in medical school. He got very depressed and flunked out. Two of my other black students that year, one from Eritrea and the other from Trinidad, tried to help him as I wasn’t able to do so.

    Most beneficiaries of affirmative action are kids from upper middle class homes, like Obama or Colin Powell’s son or are foreign students. The vast majority of black students are not represented in those statistics.

  8. David Foster

    Yes, they are somewhat wasting their money. I say that as one who did it, thousands of dollars a year for Christian academies when my sons were children. Their education was better in some ways, worse in others, a net plus. I’m not sure I’d spend the $70K (before college) that way again, though. The school funding improves matters only a bit. You are correct that the extremes of poverty do bring down the scores in other countries, but not so much as you would think. Two of my children lived it in Romania before they came here, living on bread, lard, and whatever fruit they could steal for much of their early life. The alcohol during pregnancy was likely a bigger factor than the miserable schools where only the wealthier children got any attention. But their genetics was the biggest factor of all. It just takes time. It took longer than with most American children, but both are very well employed now, in Tromso and in Nome.

    MikeK, yes scores are lacking for many nations, and we have to use what proxies we can in some cases. But the numbers are out there, for those who go look. There are a few researchers who put a lot of energy into digging out difficult data here. But even compared to the elites in African nations, American blacks do better. Environment helps some, but genetics is claiming territory in not only abilities, but personality traits, year over year. Lynn and Vanhanen are only the most famous. Pat Buchanan weighs in: American schools just have a tougher job than other places.

    We tend to overvalue our own experience and that of those around us. But commenters about education on a topic-driven blog are not a representative sample. The audience here is likely well over 1SD above average. Our families, the friends we remember, the people we talk to, are likely to be similarly skewed.

  9. I say that as one who did it, thousands of dollars a year for Christian academies when my sons were children. Their education was better in some ways, worse in others, a net plus. I’m not sure I’d spend the $70K (before college) that way again, though.

    That just outrages me. You pay for schooling through your taxes. If you choose a private school, the equivalent money for a year in government school should be made available to you as a voucher.

    We have the best government unions and special interests can buy.

  10. Unstructured learning is still learning.

    Just because hard to measure doesn’t mean not important.

    Keep summer time the time away from school to learn new social and other skills.

    Elected School Board Member

  11. As I understand it, what researchers have found is that students with middle class and upper class parents don’t lose much academic ground during the summers. But working class and lower class kids do. A lot.

    But I haven’t seen a good discussion of the research recently, so I could be wrong.

  12. Hard to see how chaining them to their desks and boring them for three more months a year is going to combat obesity.

    It’s just babysitting without the intellectual stimulation.

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