Guest Column

Moving Toward Pay Dirt


During the end-of-year holidays I often tune in to the flurry of college football bowl games, but when I do I'm looking at more than the sports action. I see the yard lines on the football field as a useful metaphor for describing the pressing need for more time on task in school for our academically neediest students.

In football, sometimes a team starts its progression down the field from its own goal line. Sometimes the team starts from the 10-yard line. Sometimes they begin from the 20-yard line or even further down the field.

In our urban schools, many of our academically needy students start their progression through their schooling without the benefit of attending a preschool program. Others have had a half-day of kindergarten, while some have not attended kindergarten at all. Usually the parents of these students are not college graduates and their families are considered economically needy.

A Long March
Using my football analogy, these students would probably start their march as 1st graders pinned deep in their own end of the field, probably 100 yards away from the end zone. These would be our "goal liners." Other academically needy students, who have attended some preschool program or kindergarten, would begin their formal education on the 10-yard line. These students would be designated as “10-yard liners.”

Now consider the field position of more economically advantaged students. These are the 1st-grade sons and daughters of college graduates. These students have had computers and full book collections in their bedrooms since they could crawl. They have attended preschool programs and kindergarten, and they have had all types of family support. These students would start on the 20-yard line, well ahead of our 10-yard liners and goal liners.

Clearly our 20-yard liners have a major step-up on their lagging colleagues. By the time they graduate from high school, they will read at the 12th-grade level on standardized tests while many of their neediest schoolmates will make only four or five months of progress in a school year. By the time they graduate, they probably will read at about the 6th-grade level.

Playing Catchup
To level the playing field for the lagging students, we must substantially increase instructional time. The addition must be massive. Just one or two hours of tutoring after school each week will not solve the skills deficit of the academically needy.

The combination of a major afterschool tutoring program, a full day of instruction on Saturday and a substantial summer session will show results. Four to five hours of afterschool tutoring each week, seven hours of additional instruction on Saturdays and a six-week summer school session will help the “goal liners” move down the field of academic achievement. Holding classes on Saturday will increase the school year by about 35 more days. A six-week summer session will add 30 more. And an afterschool program will increase the year by another 30 days. This means that a 180-day instructional year would be lengthened by the equivalent of about 95 more days.

Several years of 95 more days of instruction, I contend, will move our goal liners and 10-yard liners far down the playing field. They may not catch the 20-yard liners, but they should make up a lot of ground on their way to pay dirt.

Laval Wilson is superintendent of East Orange School District. He can be reached at 715 Park Ave., East Orange, N.J. 07017. E-mail: