This morning in our frantic rush to get out the door, I was slapping peanut butter on organic whole-grain bread when my fourth-grader — my only child currently in public school — told me, “Wait, Mom, you don’t have to make a lunch for me. It’s half-day, remember?”

“Didn’t you just have a half-day yesterday?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“And wasn’t last week a short week with two days off AND a half-day?”

“Yes.”

“And isn’t the United States ranked 19th in the world for literacy, following countries like Cuba, Estonia, Poland, and Turkmenistan1?”

“Well…”

“And isn’t the United States below average in mathematics and science literacy, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, bringing up the rear to Australia, Finland, Korea and China2?”

“I guess…”

“And doesn’t the US spend more per student than any other G83?”

“Uh…”

“Geez. No wonder Johnny can’t read.”

“Mom? Who’s Johnny?”

My point is not to impress you with the level of conversation with my young children (in fact, I made up most of the exchange described above), but that it doesn’t seem to be a far stretch to say we are paying more and getting less for our teaching dollars than many parents. During the month of November, my kid will get approximately 15 school days of instruction in the classroom. I have a feeling her peers in Singapore aren’t taking every Thursday afternoon off so their teachers can “collaborate.”

I could go on and on about whose fault it is that our kids aren’t doing well academically, and it’s really easy to point the fingers at the teachers. But to be fair, I have to point out that our public school teachers are putting in long working hours, logging more time than their counterparts in virtually every other developed country4.

So where’s the disconnect? If we’re spending the money and the teachers are working, why aren’t our kids doing better?

To me, an easy place to start is the number of hours the kids are in the classroom, engaged in learning-related activities. 15 school days a month — what amounts to halftime — is not enough, especially when a good number of those are actually two half-days (we all know how much productivity occurs on half-days at work, don’t we?).

I honestly don’t want to pay for the teachers to send the kids home early so they can work out joint lesson plans and determine who gets first crack at the slide projector for the unit on amphibians. In any other job, those sorts of tasks would be absorbed during the regular day, or after school hours. As a parent, I’d like to see my kids in the classroom five full school days a week to start with.

Time in the seat doesn’t always translate to teachable moments, but I think it’s a good start. Put it this way: You can’t teach them if they aren’t there. If we get the kids to school, ready to learn, that’s half the battle. What happens after the bell rings… well, that’s up to the teachers.

References:

1 Wikipedia:List of Countries by Literacy Rate

2 NCES

3 NCES

4 NCES