Sometimes you have to rely on an international magazine to give us a fresh perspective on ourselves. In the June 13, 2009 issue of The Economist, the columnist “Lexington” described an ironic situation: Americans, who as adults work longer hours than peers in almost all other developed countries, require less work from our children than any other developed country. Describing “The Underworked American,” Lexington points out that American children have one of the shortest school years anywhere, 180 days compared to 195 days for children in OECD countries. Over 12 years, a 15-day deficit translates into 180 days of school, equivalent to a full school year. And the story gets even worse.
Moreover, we have one of the shortest school days, six and a half hours, adding up to 32 hours a week. This compares to 53 hours a week in Denmark and 60 in Sweden. We also divide up our school time in peculiar ways. The long summer holiday is particularly detrimental – students typically forget a month’s worth of learning in most subjects, and three times as much in math. Our relatively non-competitive K-12performance is reflected in the high levels of remediation required by students entering public universities.
Lengthening the school year for American K-12 will not be easy, because of the highly decentralized nature of American K-12 education (not to mention the powerful lobbying efforts of teachers unions and summer camp advocates and the desire of some wistful American parents to give their children a modern variant of the “Huckleberry Finn” summer). But 1,000 out of the country’s 90.000 schools have abandoned the traditional school day. These include charter schools in the Knowledge Is Power Programme (KIPP) whose classes begin at 7:30 and end at 5:00 pm and include some classes on Saturday and teach for several weeks in the summer. These students regularly score better than their peers – largely a tribute to spending 60% more time in class.
Thinkers as disparate as President Obama and Newt Gingrich have encouraged educators to take action to address these problems.
Why not lengthen the school year, not just K-12, but K-20? Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and other administrative leaders have called for universities to take serious looks at making even greater use of intensive year-round operations. Many postsecondary students already do so, enrolling in courses in community colleges and hometown universities when they are home for summer vacation from their “regular” university. Many students in community colleges and metropolitan universities are already working part-time during the regular school year and carry their work and learning efforts through the summer.
Comparative analytics have been critical in describing the problems and competitive shortcomings of American education, K-20. They will also be critical in framing, modeling, and executing efforts to lengthen and intensify the school year, K-20.