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After President Obama’s speech last week, outrage likely erupted in schoolyards from coast to coast. His address proposed that America lengthen its school day and year, for two reasons: to ensure that students remain in a safe, stimulating environment when parents cannot provide one at home; and to increase America’s academic competitiveness on a global scale. While this first justification reflects a dire need across lower-income communities, the second unfairly frames education in terms of test scores instead of well-rounded mental development. America would do well to lengthen school days and shorten summers, but only if this extra instructional time were devoted to enrichment activities like arts, clubs, and sports.
As most veterans of the U.S. public-school system can attest, many students enrolled in traditional math and English courses spend each period praying for the bell to ring. Extending the school day and year without implementing significant curricular changes would only intensify this painful academic experience, possibly leading to earlier, more frequent dropouts. On the flip side, those who would otherwise checkout might find joy in playing basketball, painting, dancing, practicing the flute—activities that would improve their quality of life while also keeping them in a safe school environment. If these mandatory programs began early, in kindergarten and first grade, schools could capture children’s attention before they become jaded or negatively influenced by peer pressure.
In his theory of multiple intelligences, Professor Howard Gardner famously posited that different people possess affinities for particular types of learning, whether linguistic, body-kinesthetic, musical, spatial, etc. Schools that provide only linguistic and logical-mathematical material exclude those who learn better under different circumstances. Since underprivileged families often cannot afford to send children to expensive music camps or martial-arts lessons, young people with untapped potential remain unaware of myriad avenues toward success. Arts and sports classes offer a unique strategy for re-engaging students who have given up on themselves, academically and otherwise.
Obama’s desire to expand school hours and days, in combination with the economic stimulus bill, provides a unique opportunity for American education to adopt such enrichment courses. If the president’s scheduling plans come to fruition, schools would no longer face an either-or decision, where providing time for arts and sports comes at the cost of academic instruction. Since the stimulus bill includes an education component totaling more than $125 billion, funding for this additional class time seems plentiful. Districts that have failed historically in their attempts to implement arts and sports programs could benefit immensely from this financial support.
Schools cannot counter students’ lack of motivation by forcing them to remain longer in the very settings that first led to their disillusionment. Instead, the American education system needs to innovate—and bring enrichment into the classroom, where it belongs.
Molly M. Strauss ’11, an associate Crimson editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.
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