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WHY UTAH STUDENTS SHOULD SPEND MORE TIME IN SCHOOL

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Utah educators and government leaders should pay attention to the report issued this week by the National Education Commission on Time and Learning. The report's bottom line is that America's students are not spending enough time in school and that the time they do spend may be frittered away by too many non-academic activities.

The commission, empaneled by Congress to look carefully at the connection between time spent in school and end results, found much to concern them. In particular, they found a glaring disparity between the amount of time American students spend in actual basic academics, compared with their peers in other industrialized countries. In the four final years of school, students in Germany, France and Japan devote more than twice as much time to core subjects.Not surprisingly, the United States has made a dismal showing in international comparisons of student achievements for some time. The commission's report confirms what would seem to be a common-sense conclusion: How much time students spend in actual study is an important determinant in what they absorb during their public school experience.

Another obvious conclusion is that what students spend their time doing in school matters. Over the years, the number of subjects shoehorned into the typical American school day has diluted the amount of time spent on the basic subjects on which students build the rest of their education. The old alliterative saw promoting "readin', writin' and `rithmetic" still has validity.

Almost every legislative session in Utah, there is effort to add something new to the mandated curriculum. People with special interests see the schools as a wonderful conduit for information they want dispersed. In the state's last Legislature, for instance, there was an unsuccessful effort to add gun safety curriculum to the requirements. No matter how well-intentioned such mandates are, they burden teachers and dilute the basic curriculum.

The national report should spur a rethinking of America's education systems, which have traditionally bound students to a lock-step marching from class to class. Their accomplishments are based on seat-time, and teachers can cover only the amount of material that can be crammed into established time blocks.

During the 1994 Utah legislative session, State Superintendent Scott W. Bean tried to persuade legislators that Utah should experiment with a longer school year. The Legislature's response was disappointingly lukewarm.

The reason given by some legislators was telling. Adding days to the school calendar might be eminently successful in increasing student achievement, they said. That would obligate them to make additional time accessible to all the state's students and the costs would go up.

Money would, in fact, be a consideration in lengthening the school day or the school year. But it wouldn't be the only consideration. Any significant improvement in student learning would require both actual time and better use of the time available.

In the end, the 1994 Legislature provided enough money to allow three schools to experiment with a 220-day school year. They will begin pilot projects this fall.

Instead of backing away from such experimentation because it could end up adding to Utah's already hefty education bill, legislators and education leaders should make an honest evaluation after the experimental schools have had time to work through the inevitable challenges of such a move.

Education does cost, but it also pays. An investment in more school time could pay dividends as Utah competes in an increasingly global economy. It's a matter of commitment.