BATES COUNTY, Mo. Ever-increasing global competition in job markets and research fields has pumped up pressure on American schools to churn out smarter and better-prepared students.
Some education experts advocate year-round schools. Others say we need longer school days. Some schools have even added Saturday classes.
But a growing number of school districts across the country are trying a different strategy. In fact, theyre going in a completely different direction.
Theyre taking Mondays off.
Students go longer Tuesday through Friday because they still must meet state minimums for classroom hours. And while they dont attend class on Mondays, teachers do. They come in for staff development, lesson planning and technology training.
The idea is either horrible or innovative, depending on whom you ask. Critics say it adversely affects students education. Supporters say it makes teachers better. Students? A senior girl shrugged and said she was looking forward to sleeping in an extra day.
Officials in these four-day districts make no apologies and insist their students will hold their own against any elsewhere.
Our ACT scores are the best theyve been in 10 years, and our teachers love it, said Chris Fine, superintendent of the Lathrop school district in Clinton County, which went to four days in 2010. It was the first district in Missouri to do so after the General Assembly passed legislation a year earlier.
Most of these are small, rural districts, such as Miami R-1, about an hour south of Kansas City. Its one school building, serving all grades, is surrounded by head-high corn this time of year and has so few students the boys play football for another school in a nearby town. Eagles by day, Bobcats on Friday night.
In Montana ranch country, a Monday on the school calendar is sometimes called go-to-town day.
The Missouri law came with the requirement that any district incurring substantial drop-offs in performance must go back to the traditional five days. Its early, but no district has had to do that.
States first agreed to four-day schedules to help financially strapped small districts save money on transportation, support staff and utilities. Those savings turned out to be minimal, but thats not why Miami switched this year.
This is about making teachers better, Superintendent Frank Dahman said earlier this month on opening day.
He is convinced that giving teachers those Mondays revs them up so they can do more with the new four than the old five.
Ever since the beginning of time, weve placed demands on teachers and then not given them time to do it. With new requirements for development and new technology, those demands are going to increase. Giving them this day is what teachers have been screaming for years.
Better-prepared teachers means better students, and thats where the rubber meets the road.
No one knows for sure how many districts have gone to four-day schedules. The Education Commission of the States estimates the number at several hundred in 17 states and going up.
A big mistake, said Jennifer Davis, president of the National Center on Time & Learning, a Boston-based group that advocates more classroom time.
The idea of narrowing the educational structure is absolutely the wrong direction, Davis said. We are at a critical point of education in this country. We need to be raising standards. Were past the time of graduating from high school and getting a middle-class job. Those jobs are gone.
Our kids are going to have to compete with the world. I cant think that taking away a day of school is going to help.
Grandma seldom finds herself part of a national debate.
But shes in this one about the four-day school week. The thinking is that the plan works best in rural areas where child care for those Mondays would be less of an issue.
Were seeing this in districts where a parent is home during the day or the child can spend the day with Grandma nearby, said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, senior policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States.
Indeed, child care has been the big issue. And probably why we dont see the four-day week in large, urban districts, where parents typically work outside the home. The occasional snow day causes them enough child care trauma.
Fine, the Lathrop superintendent, said child care was a major concern at first. But a community survey conducted halfway through the first year showed that more than 70 percent of parents supported the four-day schedule.
Davis, with the National Center on Time & Learning, thinks child care is often a socio-economic issue and should be a deal breaker against the four-day week.
What about the families that cant afford enrichment activities, piano lessons and high-quality child care on those Mondays? she asked. What you would end up with in a lot of districts is kids spending those days in unsafe environments.