Six Hundred Million Years in K-12

(This post is now an August perennial, in honor of the beginning of the new school year–indeed, many kids have already been in school for 2 or 3 weeks)

Peter Orszag, who was Obama’s budget director and is now at Lazard, 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.

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, those who talk so much about their devotion to Education and The Children, are the last people in the world who are ever going to call them on it.

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

  1. Well, I believe the war on summer goes hand-in-hand with both parents working. Much cheaper to have the kids in school rather then in day care or, horrors, have one parent home looking after them.

    After all, those 1K cell phones and vacation cruises aren’t going to pay for themselves.

  2. For a LOT of people, school IS daycare, that’s all they want.

    The state of most urban school districts really should be considered a national shame. But for the average person in the suburbs or small towns, their view of the state of schools is so different, because their local schools are in general fine. Not great, but fine.

    This, of course, is lunacy, and would probably cause death to the schools, but San Francisco has very, very few children anyway:
    It mostly serves as a fine example of how insane contemporary California is.

  3. The simple truth is that public schools, given 12 years can not claim to have a majority at the end capable of literacy. We are now living in the first post-literate society where the masses will be directed by rumor. Memes will take the place of reasoned discussion. The ephemera of YouTube and Instagram will replace the Western Cannon. Indoctrination has supplanted education.

    Those that stubbornly cling to literacy will be treated with the suspicion and outright persecution that was reserved for witches and sorcerers in pre-literate societies.

  4. I read of teachers complaining they were ‘wasting so many years’ trying to teach their students.
    My immediate response was that they were wasting multiple lifetimes of all the students who failed to learn, perhaps at the hands of said teachers, and were being sentenced to lifetimes of illiteracy, sentenced without a trial.

    The teacher:student ratio indicates how much ‘student’ time/life was wasted, and is multiplied by the number of student lives affected.
    They should be ashamed.

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