When Woodrow Harding was a boy, growing up in North Carolina, nothingm took precedence over bringing in the peanut and cotton crop - not even education. The school year was molded to fit the slack and busy periods of the growing season.
For young Woodrow that meant spending the month of August confined in a steaming-hot classroom. It wasn't until harvest time in the fall that school closed, and even then it was no vacation, only ''back-breaking work.''
Now, decades later, Mr. Harding may find himself back in school in August - and September too. He is a high school teacher in Halifax county, N.C., one of two school districts in the state that have volunteered to try an extended school year, starting this year.
''I'm not sure how I feel about the idea; they've sprung it on us so fast,'' he says. ''I think it would help in the long run, and I certainly don't need to get used to the idea of working in August, but there are some things - like more school supplies - that are just as important as more hours or days.''
Nearly drowned out in the swelling tide of debate over merit pay for teachers is another recommendation by the two commissions whose reports touched off the current flood of comment on the quality of education. That recommendation is the concept of an extended school year, generally 200 to 220 days, up from the near-universal 175 to 180 days currently in vogue.
Both the National Commission on Excellence in its report, ''A Nation at Risk, '' and the report of the task force created by the Education Commission of the States, entitled ''Action for Excellence,'' recommend lengthening the school year.
Tommy Tomlinson, principal researcher for the Commission on Excellence says: ''Our recommendation is based primarily on dramatic evidence from Japan and other countries which spend more time in school and typically do better than American schools. There is evidence that the more time one spends on task the more one tends to learn.''
It is no coincidence that North Carolina is one of the first to act on the suggestions. Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. is chairman of the Task Force on Education for Economic Growth, which produced ''Action for Excellence.'' North Carolina wanted three school districts to extend their school years and days; two volunteered. The experiment is scheduled to last three years, beginning in August, pending final approval by the state legislature.