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Pondering prodigious pedagogical possibilities

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There is a quote attributed (probably wrongly) to Winston Churchill that goes “The American people can always be counted on to do the right thing. But only after exhausting all other possibilities.”

I think about that quote often when I think about public education policy. The trouble is, we seem to be stuck in an endless loop of trying “all other possibilities.”

I was reading this week about school district 27-J, which encompasses Brighton, Reunion, and Commerce City, and how the superintendent of schools has presented to the school board a serious proposal to study moving to a four-day week. So, I asked a friend of mine, who is on the 27J school board, about the idea, wondering if this is nothing more than an “other possibility.”

98 school districts in Colorado currently operate in a four-day week, the largest of these being the western part of Pueblo, with an enrollment of around 10,000 students (Jeffco, for reference, has just a shade under 85,000). As you might imagine, most of the districts on this calendar are rural and mountain schools, for whom transportation is a major expense.

Among the benefits my friend cited for me, along with transportation expense, is reduced expenses for facilities usage, reduced absenteeism for both teachers and students (because you can always schedule that doctor’s appointment (or ski trip) on the extra weekday off), and increased retention and attraction of teachers. So far, the biggest downfall that he’s heard people complain about is uncertainty about day care for the younger students on that extra day a week.

Not surprisingly, the data on 4-day versus 5-day is inconclusive, because, well, as in almost everything education related, data can be found to support just about any policy position. At the very least, there is no strong evidence that learning or achievement are negatively impacted by a four-day school week.

My personality type is said to apply with ruthless efficiency the question, “does it work?” So, with all innovations, I start from the position of “Are we happy with schools the way they are? Do they work?” Almost universally, the answer to that is either an unenthusiastic “I guess,” or a blunt “no.” So, then we move to “Will this [insert latest education fad here] make them work better?” Most of the time, the answer to that is “we don’t know.” So, most of the time, I support new ideas and innovations — let’s see if they work.

For that reason, I am not nearly as oppositional about charter schools as most of my teacher friends. The problem is usually in the next stage:
at some point, you have to ask again “did this work?” And we never seem to get to that point — bad ideas become entrenched or hidden, and really good things never receive wider implementation.

If 27J is willing to test these particular waters and see if there’s some benefit to it, I say Godspeed to them! I hope it works, and, if it does, I hope many other districts take a serious look at moving to it. And if it doesn’t, then … thanks for trying. We appreciate the knowledge.

Change of pace

Once a month this year, I am going to take a little space in my column to point out something of extreme beauty. The world is plenty full of snark and ugliness and evil, so I’m going to counterbalance. If you would indulge me…

Today’s is “Nessun Dorma,” an aria for baritone singer from the opera “Turandot” by Giaccamo Puccini. I know: some of you see that and say “ugh — opera.” I get it, but ... seriously, find this piece of music and let it surround you a few times.

The melody is soaring and will stay with you, the harmonies are dramatic, and the movement from tension to resolution is very rewarding.

Yes, really — just try it. If nothing else, watch the penultimate scene of “The Sum of All Fears” and enjoy how a 100-year old piece of music still makes a great backdrop for a modern thriller.

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