October 21 2009
American Schooling Needs More Quality Time, Not Quantity Time
Vicki E. Alger, Ph.D
(This post was co-authored by Evelyn B. Stacey , Education Studies Policy Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, California.)
Last week President Obama proposed that students spend more time in school. "We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day," the president said. Currently, states are required to teach 180 days per year, but many states want to shorten the school year due to small budgets. President Obama has suggested adding nearly 20 days or more to the school year. The president is right about our arcane school system; however, the fact that it's a monopoly insulated from competition-not its calendar-is the real problem. It is true, as the president notes, that other countries have longer school years- Japan with 243 days, Korea, 220, Israel 216, and the Netherlands 200. Yet he neglects to mention that those countries are getting the job done in a fraction of the time and for pennies on the dollar because they have fewer teaching hours or shorter school days. Among the 32 countries participating in the latest Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) assessment, the U.S. has the most teaching hours per public school year-1,080-compared to the international average of 803. Top international performers have far fewer teaching hours per school year. Korea has roughly 575, Finland has 600, while Germany and the Netherlands have around 775 hours each. Japan has the least teaching hours of all with just 505 teaching hours per school year.
Quality time, not quantity time, is what American students need to be prepared for the competitive global economy. A full 70 percent of the countries that outperformed the United States in combined math and science literacy among 15-year-olds internationally had more schools competing for students, according to data from the OECD. This means students in such countries as Communist China, Japan, Hong Kong, and Germany, as well as former Soviet-bloc countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Slovak Republic, and Latvia, all enjoy more education options than their U.S. peers. The president and other elected officials should forget about calendars and focus on competition. Let parents pick their children's schools, make schools compete for students, and offer competitive pay for top-quality teachers according to their performance and market demand. That's the tried-and-true formula for academic success.