Education in America: Doing Less with Less

This post, by Mathew Casey, orginally appeared in the Wicked Local earlier this week.

Year after year, studies continue to find that American students trail their international peers in academic achievement. However, American students have long remained among the world leaders in one category: vacation.
For more than 100 years, the school year in most of the U.S. has been limited to 180 days. In contrast, it is not uncommon for students in the rest of the industrialized world to attend school 200 days or more each year.
The Program for International Student Assessment measures the proficiency of students from around the world in reading, math and science. Of the 65 countries tested in 2009, the United States placed 23rd.
Each of the top 10 performing countries have longer school years than the United States: China (223 days per year); Hong Kong (200); Singapore (200); Finland (190); South Korea (225); Japan (220); Canada (190); New Zealand (200); the Netherlands (200); and Australia (200).
Compounding the disparity is the fact that the school day in many other countries is longer than the typical six-hour day required of students in the U.S. When aggregate classroom time is considered over the course of a 12-year primary school career, American students receive anywhere from one to five fewer years of education than their international peers.
Our technology-driven world is becoming increasingly complex and participants in the modern global economy require a broader base of knowledge than ever before to remain competitive. Incongruously, we endeavor to prepare our children for the realities of the 21st century by utilizing a 19th century education model.
After spending months in school, American students are given a 2 1/2-month summer vacation, during which time they invariably forget much of what they learned. Studies have shown this summer “learning loss” sets most students back about two months in reading and three months in math. Low-income students, whose parents are less able to supplement summer downtime with educational opportunities, fare even worse.
There are alternatives.
The impact of learning loss could be mitigated by evenly dividing the current school year into four quarters and converting the 12 weeks of vacation that most students get into four three-week breaks. Even without lengthening the school year, a balanced schedule could reduce burnout for both teachers and students and reduce the negative impact of learning loss.
Regardless of whether a balanced schedule is implemented, the fact remains our students are expected to learn as much as their foreign counterparts despite having less time to do so. If the current class day was expanded by two hours, students would gain the equivalent of 60 additional school days per year; from first grade through high school, that’s about four additional years of education.
Increased class time alone is not a panacea; careful planning must be undertaken to ensure the focus is on quality, not quantity. But there are ancillary benefits to expanding the school day.
Due to the prevalence of single parent households and families in which both parents work, at least 25 percent of American children return home from school to an empty house. These unsupervised latchkey kids have lower grades and higher rates of substance abuse, sexual promiscuity and behavioral problems.
A longer school day would favorably correspond with most parental work schedules, provide structure to millions of children who would otherwise be left to fend for themselves and reduce family expenses for after school programs and babysitting.
In addition, to compensate for their shorter school days and extended vacations, American students are increasingly bombarded with mountains of homework. The time lost to longer school days would be partially offset by a reduction in the amount of time children have to spend at home completing the work they didn’t have time to finish at school.
After decades of opposition, polls today reflect a majority interest in expanding the school year, but only about 4 percent of American schools use year-round scheduling and less than 1 percent have implemented an extended school year.
Many see cost as the reason for inaction; in today’s economy, most school districts are cutting programs, not expanding them. However, any cost-benefit analysis concerning school reform should also weigh the economic costs of leaving an entire generation at a competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace.
The most problematic issue facing reform may be that we simply have lower standards than the rest of the world. In a study of students from the U.S., Japan and Taiwan, U.S. students accounted for only 1 percent of the highest performing fifth grade students even though the study included an equal number of students from each country.
Despite this poor showing, 40 percent of American parents were satisfied with their children’s progress in school, while less than 5 percent of Japanese and Taiwanese parents were satisfied. American parents were also much more likely than their foreign counterparts to believe that math skills were largely an inheritable trait left to chance rather than the product of hard work.
Until we embrace change and evidence the will to effect it, we will continue to shrug our shoulders and wonder why things don’t get any better. Even among those parents who acknowledge that a problem exists, many resist reform with the rationalization that the traditional school year somehow preserves their romanticized perception of childhood.
Perhaps we should be less concerned about preserving our children’s childhoods than robbing them of their future.