SALT LAKE CITY — Curious about what the warriors on the front line might think of President Barack Obama's call this week for a longer school year — so America can keep up with the Japans, South Koreas, Germanys, New Zealands and other countries that lead the world in student achievement levels — I dropped by West High School at quitting time.
The bell had sounded at 2:30 p.m. and at 2:45 p.m., Steve Brien, a West High geography teacher, was swinging a set of keys as he walked down a nearly deserted main hall.
If you think teenagers can't move very fast, show up when classes end.
If he had a minute, I said to Mr. Brien, I'd be interested in hearing what he thought of the president's comments.
He stopped, turned and delivered.
"I'm tired of him comparing us to those countries," he said, wasting no time getting into the subject. "It's not fair. I did my thesis on this. Only about one-third of the kids in those countries — most of Europe and Asia — go to high school; it's only the kids with the grades who go on. Compare apples to apples."
Brien, a 15-year teaching veteran who has been at West High for two years, got his master's degree in education, it turns out, and the title of his thesis: "Comparing Education Between Europe, Asia and the United States."
He learned through his research that the school systems are different between there and here, and not just in the number of days in a school year.
"They" may go to an average of 196 days a year, compared to the U.S. (and Utah) average of 180 — as Obama pointed out — but that's not the only diversity.
"In one of my studies," said Brien, "the top third in America compared better than Japan and Europe. We did better. It's when you compare all of our students to theirs that it falls off.
"I think they (the Obama administration) need to worry about quality rather than quantity," he continued. "I went to 161 days of school where I grew up (in northern California). It's not the days, it's the quality. There are a lot of things you can do to improve quality: Reduce class sizes, give teachers all the supplies they need."
It would also help, he said, if everyone spoke the same language.
"I know (in other systems) they all have to speak the language of that country, that's very common in other countries," he said. "Not here. I have 40 kids in my classes, and some of them barely speak English.
"They have no idea," he said, referring to the Obamas. "I mean he sends his kids to private school."
There's already too much government in our lives, he thinks, and Obama's call for a longer school year to help arrest the learning drop-off that too often takes place during the summer break is another reflection of that.
In his education speech, the president said: "Kids are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer. It's especially severe for poorer kids, who may not see as many books in the house during the summers, aren't getting as many educational opportunities."
To which Mr. Brien responded, "My personal opinion is that the government is trying to take over family responsibility. Get parents involved, make students accountable, improve the quality. Then, you're getting somewhere."
Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.