We relocated recently to Hoodsport, Washington. Hoodsport is a beautiful spot, but if you were moving a family here, some things might be more important to you than Hoodsport’s beauty.

You would probably ask: “Are the schools good?” What would you mean by “good”?

What do you think makes an ideal school? As a parent, or as a teacher, what do you think would make your local school ideal? Would longer school days do it? Would an addition of more school days to the year make your school great? What kind of school can best prepare children for the 21st century?

The current U.S. president spoke to that question last Tuesday: “…the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom,” he said. He recommended longer class hours as part of his plan to improve U.S. schools – schools that he said are falling behind those in foreign countries.

“Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us,” Obama said. “In 8th grade math, we’ve fallen to 9th place. Singapore’s middle-schoolers outperform ours three to one. Just a third of our 13- and 14-year olds can read as well as they should.”

But wait!

Has that happened because your students are spending too few hours in school? Are your students letting grades slip because they don’t sit in classrooms longer each day or attend school during the summer months?

Is this really the equation for success?

TIME = EXCELLENCE

Never!

I will agree that American schools are not what they should be. I will agree that they are not what they could be, and that they need to be improved.

I will not agree, however, that the solution to the problem lies in increased study time. Time is not the missing factor.

Consider a grocery store. The mere fact that two clerks clock in and out at the same times does not mean that both become equally skilled. Make the less skilled clerk spend three more hours a day, and he still will not attain the skill of the first.

In a hospital, two nurses put in identical hours, but the first becomes an excellent nurse while the second becomes only mediocre. Extend the shift of the second nurse by three hours, and she still will not achieve the skill of the first.

During my years as school principal, I had ample opportunity to observe the same with teachers. I think of three teachers who spent identical hours of time in school, but the work they produced was vastly different. If my teacher with the least ability had put in three more hours each day, he would still not have become a better teacher. Why?

As a teacher myself, I saw immense differences in student performance, despite the fact that all spent the same number of hours in the classroom. If Stephen had spent three more hours in school every day, he still would not have gotten the grades Scott got. If Latoya’s academic year had been extended by four weeks, it would have made no difference in her achievement. Why?

Character.

THAT’S THE SECRET!

Instead of increasing the school day, we must increase character building. Instead of extending the academic year, we must extend the focus, consistency, and forcefulness of character education!

More hours and/or more days alone will not produce your ideal school.

For years, U.S. schools have been stripping their schedules of so-called “time consumers” such as fine arts and physical education. They did this to gain more time for mathematics, science, and other academic subjects that were thought to be much more important.

Result? While U.S. students ranked 24th in the 1995, 1999 and 2003 TIMSS Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, Singapore students ranked 1st in the study.

Aha! Singapore students must spend longer hours in school, right?

Wrong.

Singapore’s school calendar is the same as that of the U.S. and their schools continue to fit sports and games, performing arts, clubs, and uniformed groups (like ROTC or Scouts) into the calendar.

The difference is that, among industrialized nations, Singapore’s students ranked #1 in every single subject and age group in the latest TIMSS test, while U.S. students ranked only #24.

What is Singapore’s secret?

Character.

Students are taught self discipline. They learn to exercise responsibility toward their homework. They exercise respect toward teachers, maximizing classroom time. And that’s only the beginning of the strong character instilled in every student.

Japan ranked #2 in the study cited above. Do Japan’s students spend much longer hours in school each day than do students in the U.S.? No.

I lived in Japan for 11 years. I taught English in Japanese schools. A typical school day in Japan lasts from 8:30 a.m. until approximately 3:50 p.m. Schools provide academic classes in the morning and (imagine it!) music, art, physical education, and a study period in the afternoon. On Mondays, study time is often shortened by a 25-minute morning school assembly. Students get a 10-15-minute break after each of their three morning classes. Lunch break is 45 minutes long, and after that, students all spend 30 minutes cleaning their schools. Japanese students do attend school a half-day on Saturdays, and their summer break is shorter, but they have longer breaks throughout the year. It evens out to be nearly the same as the U.S.

However Japan’s students ranked #2 in the latest TIMSS test, while U.S. students ranked #24 among industrialized nations.

What is Japan’s secret?

Character.

Students are taught self-discipline. They learn to exercise responsibility toward their homework. They exercise respect toward teachers, maximizing classroom time. And that’s only the beginning of the strong character instilled in every student.

YOU could improve academic success dramatically in YOUR school by stressing character.

Students who build and exercise character improve in academics.

•    Irresponsible students who are given three more hours in a school day will not make better grades. They will simply be irresponsible for three more hours. Those who learn to exercise responsibility in the same number of hours they now have, however, will dramatically improve their grades.
•    Undisciplined students who are required to attend school for thirty more days a year will not raise their scores on tests. They will simply be undisciplined for thirty more days. Those who learn to build and exercise self-discipline, however, will not need thirty more days to change into outstanding students.
•    Disrespectful bullies who are forced to sit under a teacher’s guidance for additional hours and/or days will not begin to excel in mathematics and science as a result. They will simply be disrespectful bullies for more hours and/or days. However, if those same students build and exercise respect toward teachers and classmates, their academic success will soar.

Do you believe that? Do you believe that the building and exercising of stronger character will accomplish more than extended school time? Belief demands action. If you believe in the power of character, do you have the courage to back up your belief with aggressive action in YOUR school?

Do you believe your school should expand its character education program? Do you believe only teachers who exercise strong character should be asked to teach character education? Do you believe character education should be a teacher’s specialty rather than a “Cinderella course” assigned to non-specialists? Do you believe character education should be woven throughout every subject in the school curriculum and not short-changed, assigned to “leftover” time?

What if the current U.S. president chose the following path to an ideal school?

•    Train teachers in authentic character – unchanging, undiluted moral absolutes.
•    Select only the best, well-trained educators to handle character education.
•    Extend the school day by just one hour – and use the entire extra 60 minutes to teach character as aggressively and outstandingly as possible.
•    Weave strong character training into every course of study.
•    Teach strong character as though students’ lives depend on it – which, in a large sense, they do!

The U.S. president may hold no conviction that character is important. Your school board, principal, and teachers may lack conviction on the necessity of character. Some may believe character education is a luxury that must be sacrificed to make more time for essential academic pursuits.

But you?

I hope you maintain a strong conviction that character is vital to an ideal school, and that you will exercise the courage of your convictions.