While you were engaged in non-essential, non-education activities on Saturday such as grocery shopping, attending your kid’s little league game, or doing your part for the economy by hitting the mall, Fordham’s Checker Finn was on the job, asking why kids aren’t in school on Saturday. His piece in the Wall Street Journal (which it should be noted, used to publish only Monday through Friday) argues Saturday morning shouldn’t be for cartoons. It should be for school.
In the face of budget shortfalls, school districts in many parts of the United States today are moving toward four-day weeks. This is despite evidence that longer school weeks and years can improve academic performance. Schoolchildren in China attend school 41 days a year more than most young Americans—and receive 30% more hours of instruction. Schools in Singapore operate 40 weeks a year. Saturday classes are the norm in Korea and other Asian countries—and Japanese authorities are having second thoughts about their 1998 decision to cease Saturday-morning instruction. This additional time spent learning is one big reason that youngsters from many Asian nations routinely out-score their American counterparts on international tests of science and math.
His piece, “The Case for Saturday School,” points out that an American kid at 18, “will have spent just 9% of his or her hours on this planet under the school roof (and that assumes full-day kindergarten and perfect attendance) versus 91% spent elsewhere.”
I appreciate the impulse, but the first question that I always ask about extended day and weekend classtime is what exactly will be going on that there’s no time for during regular school hours? If it’s simply more of what’s not working during the week, well, no thanks. I’ve banged on this drum endlessly over the years, but the real enemy of achievement in low-performing schools is the time lost to disruption and wasted on curriculum with no caloric content, problems which, to be fair, Finn alludes to. Still, using Saturday to make up for time squandered Monday through Friday doesn’t strike me as wise, and you don’t have to be a unionista to suggest that a six-day work week for teachers might be a bridge too far.
Make Saturday school voluntary and about “more” not “more of the same” and I’d start to get excited. There has to be a bigger payoff than raising reading scores from “below dismal” to ”approaching minimally acceptable” on laughably low-bar state tests. Maybe it would do more for national economic competitiveness (if one insists on making that the endgame of education) if we used afternoons and weekends to help low-SES kids who are already at or above grade level and capable of holding their own in elite educational settings a chance to close the knowledge gap with more privileged peers at high-achieving schools. Those are the kind of kids who are starved for oxygen right now.