Mike Hihn, Editor Publisher

New support for 'back-to-basics'

''... by the time <our students>  graduate from high school, they have, on average, studied core subjects for 1,460 hours, while Japanese students have spent 3,170 hours and German students 3,528.''  -Albert Shanker


A surprising move to the right comes from Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. His recent commentary, a full-page ad in The New Republic (August 15, 1994), provides strong support for the long ridiculed ''back to basics'' movement. New research supports a position identified with conservatives and libertarians: American schools waste too much time on non-academics.

Shanker reports on ''Prisoners of Time,'' a study on the use of time in American schools. Most reports trumpeted the fewer school days in our academic year.

But Shanker digs deeper and finds something else entirely. American kids spend fewer days in school, but our kids spend more hours in the classroom. Our school day is longer.

This is compared with a study by the National Center for Education Statistics. These data are for 13-year-olds, not high school. But Shanker notes our students are already behind other nations at this early age.

Our own 180-day school year provides an average of 1,003 instructional hours. That's a lot more than countries that routinely outscore us on international tests. Japanese kids get 13% fewer hours (875) despite 22% more school days (220). Koreans get only 977 hours out of 223 days.

But ... Shanker notes, ''Our students spend less than half their time -- only 41 percent -- learning core subjects like English or math. So by the time they graduate from high school, they have, on average, studied core subjects for 1,460 hours, while Japanese students have spent 3,170 hours and German students 3,528.''

Dwell on that for a second.

That's why our kids are getting battered in international competition. The other teams play four quarters. Our team leaves the arena before halftime.

Shanker rejects the notion of lengthening the school year. Rightly so. To match Germany, by changing nothing else, we'd have to keep our kids in school for 435 out of 365 days. Apparently, it's not just our students who have problems with simple math.

As a former insider myself (school board member), I can see Shanker lobbing grenades at the agenda of a rival union, the National Education Association -- in self-defense.

Shanker's AFT locals are concentrated more in big-city school districts. So his teachers (and their students) can only lose if the latest reform mantra consists of simply throwing more money at a longer school year. Inner-city schools don't have the money to waste on yet another decade of failed school reforms. And suburban kids don't have the luxury.

Education critics have long noted a great disparity in American public schools. We spend more money per student than our major trade competitors, but get the worst results. Now we know why.

Our kids spend the most time sitting in costly classrooms, but the least time actually studying core subjects.

Shanker sees this as a debate on school priorities. I see a damning indictment of American education. I've been in the trenches myself, as a school board member in Ohio. So I've seen what happens to parents who try to restore core academics.

Welcome aboard, Mr. Shanker.