If there’s one thing we should not be dealing with right now, it’s the back-to-school blues.
As President Barack Obama insists, the biggest problem we face is re-creating the middle class. As thousands of fast-food workers strike across the nation for a living wage, we have to ask why we think we can make economic progress by giving schoolchildren two or three months off each summer.
Other countries do not do this. One of my most vivid memories is seeing dozens of backpack-laden children in Tokyo headed to school at 7:30 on a Saturday morning in the summer.
Pity our poor teachers who spend every September reprogramming children to do their homework, spending hours on remedial lessons and waiting until overtired children readjust to regular bedtimes.
Once, when we were primarily an agricultural nation, giving children summers off made sense. But with summer jobs hard to find and millions of bored children sleeping until noon, playing video games or being shuttled to expensive summer camps by stressed-out parents, long summer holidays are nonsensical.
This nation desperately needs a 12-month school year.
In rural areas, where teenage workers are vital, accommodations could be made by individual school districts. But as a national policy, we are falling behind other countries; our children are no longer the best-educated in the world.
If we are going to embrace economic opportunity for all Americans, we have to take far more seriously the competition our children face from the rest of the world.
The U.S. Department of Education boasts that American fourth-graders’ skills in reading, science and math have improved and that in reading literacy they are surpassed by children in only four other countries. But DOE also admitted last October that “learning gains in fourth grade are not being sustained through eighth grade — where mathematics and science achievement failed to measurably improve between 2007 and 2011.”
The argument that the retail industry needs high-school students no longer holds true. Most of the striking fast-food workers are adults trying unsuccessfully to support families on less than $10 an hour. And the argument that such jobs lead to advancement and managerial positions is specious; only about 2 percent advance to managerial jobs.
Few fast-food workers even get 40-hour workweeks or benefits. They do not have the collective-bargaining power that unions had to create the middle class after World War II. If the federal minimum wage — $7.25 an hour since 2009 — had kept pace with inflation, it would be $11 by now, according to the National Employment Law Project. If it had kept pace with productivity growth, it would be almost $20.
The only way we will make economic progress — and restore the battered middle class — is through better education. Teaching children to pass tests, as we have been doing for years now, is not working. Our students must learn far more, learn more broadly and learn more deeply.
Even colleges have discovered that just passing students from one level to another is not enough. Some institutions of higher learning are beginning to require tests for graduation to provide assurance to future employers that they are getting what they pay for. Think of it as mini bar exams for engineers, scientists, teachers and technicians.
A 12-month school year, with two-week breaks here and there, would definitely help working parents. Finding care for young children during the summers is costly and arduous. Worse, children are left to fend for themselves. And who has not worried about the temptations idle teenagers are subject to during long summer days?
Of course, there is opposition. Some think children work too hard and need to relax. (For eight to 12 weeks?) Some want children to get the benefit of those hard-to-find part-time jobs. Some families can afford long vacations (for which exceptions could be made).
And some think the economy depends on those ubiquitous back-to-school sales.
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.