A new report concludes that contrary to popular perception — including that of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s — most U.S. public schools require at least as much or even more instructional time for students than countries touted for their high performance on international tests, including Finland, Japan and South Korea.
The report was issued by the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education, which measured time based on the minimum number of hours of instruction per year countries require their public schools to provide in a formal classroom setting.
The amount of instructional time students receive has become a popular issue for school reformers, some of whom point out that the public charter schools that perform best have extended school days.
Making a simple link between length of school day and school success or failure ignores the many other factors that affect how well students do, as well as the more salient point that the real issue is how instructional time is spent.
Duncan himself has adhered to this time equals success equation; at a 2009 congressional hearing, he said: “Our students today are competing against children in India and China. Those students are going to school 25 to 30 percent longer than we are. Our students, I think, are at a competitive disadvantage.”
The association that issued the report that shows this notion to be false obviously has a vested interest in promoting public schools. And because of differences in the way countries calculate compulsory school time, the report’s authors warn that the data “should not be read as the exact number of hours of teaching students receive.” Moreover, each U.S. state has its own rules on instructional time by grade level, further complicating any comparison.
But as data-obsessed reformers like to say, data is data (even when it isn’t), and the data presented by the association tells an interesting story.
Here are some of the highlights of the report, which you can see here,
*In India, schools are open 200 days a year for grades 1-5, for a total of 800 instructional hours per year, compared to 220 days and 1,000 instructional hours in grades 6-8.
— The 800 instructional hours at the elementary school level is less than what is required at the elementary level in California (840 hours), Florida (900 hours in grades 4-6), New York (900 hours), Texas (1,260 hours), and Massachusetts (900 hours). Eight states require fewer than 800 hours of instructional time and in most of those, the reduced hours only apply to grades 1 through 3.
— The 1,000 instructional hours India requires in grades 6-8 (middle school) is similar to the requirement in most states. According to the Education Commission of the States, 35 states require at least 990 hours of instruction at the middle school level, including Texas (1260 hours), New York (990 hours) and Massachusetts (990 hours).
*The data relating to China is more complicated but the report’s authors, using numerous sources, found that while students there may be going to school nearly 20 percent more days a year than American kids, actual instructional time is similar to that in many U.S. states.
*Finland is often cited as a top-performing country, though the hours of compulsory instruction there are 608, fewer than in any state in the United States.
*Twenty-two states require more instructional hours than South Korea.
*At the middle-school level, Japan, at 868 hours, and Korea, at 867 hours, require fewer hours than most U.S. states.
“By the 8th grade, students in most U.S. states have been required to receive more hours of instruction than students in most industrialized countries, including high-performing Finland, Japan, and [South] Korea,” the report says.
It is worthwhile noting again that the amount of time in school clearly is not dispositive in any way in regard to student achievement. How the time is spent is the real issue, as well as the conditions in which children live when they are not in school and the obstacles they face in successfully learning.
Many modern school reformers have unfortunately maintained a narrow focus about the conditions that lead to academic success, including the notion that more school time is necessarily better.
For years now we’ve dealt with their refusal to face the impact of poverty on students, their disinclination to revamp outdated curriculum, their obsessive reliance on standardized testing as the be-all and end-all of accountability measures, and their unwarranted faith that the corporate world holds the answers to fixing the public education system.
At some point, perhaps the weight of the evidence against their agenda — and it is growing every day — would come crashing down on them and make them reconsider.
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