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LENGTHEN SCHOOL DAY, SCHOOL YEAR

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For many students throughout Utah, the next few weeks mark the end of summer and a return to the classroom. Consequently, for parents and educators, this is also a time for renewed attention to the persistent problem of how to make schools more efficient and effective.

Put parents and teachers in a room together, ask what's wrong with public education, and one of the first things you're likely to hear is that children don't spend enough time in school.There is no mystery about this. The school day is too short, the summer break is - at least for many students - too long and there is too much fluff in the curriculum.

How can we teach what needs to be taught when schools across the country are empty some 185 days a year, when classes often end at 3 in the afternoon and when much of the day is cluttered with clubs, athletic events and courses in driving a car, getting along with the opposite sex or feeling better about oneself?

In a reminder of how far we've strayed, a commission created by Congress in 1991 has found, after two years of study, that American students cannot keep pace with students abroad if they continue to spend only half as much time studying basic subjects.

The National Education Commission on Time and Learning recommends that students receive at least 5.5 hours of core instruction each day, that "some schools" be open year-round - a trend already under way to some extent in Utah and elsewhere - and that the school day be extended to accommodate extracurricular activities.

"The six-hour, 180-day school year should be relegated to museums," the commission contends.

"American students have one of the shortest school years in the industrialized world," says former Yale President Benno Schmidt, who plans to operate three public schools in Massachusetts on a 210-day schedule as part of his Edison Project next year.

Though such reforms make sense, it's much easier to formulate them than it is to get them off the drawing board. For that to happen, parents will have to be more flexible about family vacation times - and more willing to dip into their pocketbooks. In some cases, lengthening the school day or the school year will require higher salaries and higher taxes. Parents who say they want change had better be ready to stand up and be counted when the opportunity for change actually arrives.