American Schools and International Comparisons

Earlier in the week, I posted a couple of links to discussions about comparing time in school in American schools vs. schools abroad, and we had a great discussion about the benefits of a longer school day.

In the New York Times, Geoffrey Canada, the president and chief executive of Harlem Children’s Zone, wrote, "When you look at our (roughly) 180 school days in comparison with Japan
and Germany (about 240), you see how our children are underprepared for
competition almost from Day 1."

In Atlantic Monthly, Conor Clark provided a handy chart to show how far we lag behind Asian countries in terms of days spent in school and argued that we really need a longer school year in the US in order to compete.

School year by country

We may really need a longer school year in the US, especially for low-income children. Research does show that it helps lower-income kids, though there's no evidence that it would benefit other children. 

There may be excellent reasons to extend the school year, but comparisons with schools abroad may be misleading. Commenters on this blog really put some serious holes in these international comparisons of the school year.

Claudia writes,

Re the 240 days at school in Germany: hell, yes. Because my kids (1st and 2nd grade) come home at 11 am.

Yes, you read that right. They start school at 7:40 am. Those are
really short days. Both used to be in US-curriculum based International
schools and had much longer days (until 3 pm), longer vacations, and
they learned a lot more.

Blah. I'm not happy, no.

Amanda writes,

I can't speak for Japan, I teach in Korea where the students attend a
lot more days than North Americans. Like in Germany, they also get out
of school earlier in the day, though they do often have to go every
other Saturday.

That said, most students attend as many private lessons as they can afford because the education is fairly low quality.

Three cheers for the collective knowledge of the blogosphere.

Ever since the 1983 publication of the Nation at Risk, Americans have been very insecure about the comparative value of our schools. Tyack and Cuban's Tinkering toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform is a great book, which questions those arguments.


19 thoughts on “American Schools and International Comparisons

  1. I always swim against the stream, a grave character flaw. However, I find the assumption that more time will produce better results to be simplistic at best. Finland has scored really well on PISA and TIMS for years, very consistently, and yet this chart states their school year is only 10 days longer. Canada does respectably well, and is more heterogeneous than the asian countries–and their school year is 190 days. (I’m relying on Wikipedia and a quick Googling here, so please correct me if I’m wrong.)
    I’ll admit that I have a bias. My older children were fantastically bored by the classroom experience in our local public school system. The thought of potentially expanding the time in school by 30% is horrifying.

  2. More time does seem to produce better results, particularly for low-income disadvantaged children (Fryer’s paper on Canada’s Children’s Zone attributes the entire gain to extra time in class).
    Finland has a 2% child poverty rate, which certainly matters more than time in school.
    Hours is more important than days, and even on hours we are remarkably low in international comparisons (Google will help you figure this out.
    BUT, inconvenient as it is for all adults, my conjecture would be that having children in school for many more shorter days would be more productive than having them there for many fewer longer days even if you held the hours constant. My kids spend 6 1/2 hours in a place where they never get time to eat, run around, socialise, etc — 4 hours, and 50% more days would make much more sense (if education, rather than child-minding, were the purpose).

  3. “…it seems that hours of schooling per year is a more important indicator than days of schooling.”
    But the big summer break we have in the US is very harmful to low-income children. The beginning of textbooks and the beginning of the school year consist largely of review and trying to reinstall the knowledge that disappeared over the course of the summer, a truly Sisyphean challenge. It’s somehow not harmful in the same way to middle-class children. They keep learning and moving forward, in school and out of school.
    And as people have mentioned, school is only half of it. After school, some kids go to classes or cram school or have their retired grandmas and grandpas sit and watch them do homework.

  4. Maybe this is a ridiculous question that I should know the answer to, but is “Summer School” an actual thing? It happens on sit-coms or TV shows where the kid has to get a certain grade or else he’s going to have to miss summer vacation and go to Summer School. But I’ve never heard of an actual person in the real world ever getting sent there — either when I was a kid or now as a parent.
    Because assuming that a longer school year will help some people who are struggling, but not others who can learn enough in 180 days, the ABC Movie of the Week concept of Summer School seems like a good idea.

  5. Summer school for kids who need to make up work, or who failed, exists. Schools in our area generally aren’t air conditioned, so it’s hot. I don’t know how effective it is.
    Of course, above a certain income level, many children participate in extra academics in the summer. I also don’t know how effective that is.

  6. The long summer break can be problematic for students with learning disabilities too – my younger sister has CP and had to be tutored over the summer in order to keep her skills from disappearing.

  7. Our district has a very substantial summer school program. Some of the kids I work with really like summer school – because they know they are guaranteed at least one meal/day if they have summer school.
    I think the answer is to make it possible for the school districts to come up with flexible after-school/summer school options that are available for all kids. Some of us wouldn’t need them – but they would be immensely beneficial to all of those who did.
    I also think that we need to start admitting that in some school districts (like ours) for many families, the school is providing way more than basic education. Our district provides:
    a) 2 meals/day
    b) preventative medical care
    c) social work
    d) all extra-curricular activity
    e) childcare
    f) assistance to parents who don’t speak English
    Although my own kids might not benefit from extra days or hours of school, it is easy for me to see how many other kids do.

  8. I think you’re right, harry. I think my kids would benefit from a shorter school day, but a longer year. Jonah didn’t have time to eat lunch today, because his math teacher let him out late and he couldn’t get past the big kids to the cafeteria. His brain was totally fried by the time he came home. He wasn’t ready for homework, dinner, soccer, and all that. He had a tough night that ended in tears. He would have benefited from a shorter day and more time reading books with me.
    I’m not sure that all kids would benefit from a four hour day. Really need a parent who is home and is able/willing to read, do art projects, or go on adventures. Maybe if we had a better system of after-care which could provide those things.

  9. Re: summer school. I went to the top ranked school system in NJ and we all went to summer school. The honors kids went to summer school. We took a vocabulary course to improve our SAT scores, and my mom made me take a writing class one summer. It was annoying, but that’s just what we did.

  10. “I think my kids would benefit from a shorter school day, but a longer year.”
    I asked my 2nd grader what she thought at dinner tonight, and she was very insistent that she would want a longer year but a shorter day.

  11. Further to the Germany comparison, when we’re talking about structural barriers to women participating in the labor force, especially in any responsible position, let’s talk about a school day that ends between 11am and noon.

  12. “Germans are much more likely than Americans to live near parents, siblings, etc.”
    When my German nephew goes to school in Bavaria, his grandparents take care of after-school stuff. I expect that was the Russian model, too, to some extent–grandma (who lives with the family) will take care of afterschool snacks, etc.

  13. When my husband was a kid growing up in Warsaw (and his parents were both graduate students), he’d go to grandma’s after school.
    Back to Russia, it just occurred to me that the Russian retirement age for women has traditionally been something like 55 (60 for men), so there’s definitely a state-sponsored nudge toward full-time caregiving.

  14. I was educated K-12 in the 50s at a LAB School on a college campus. We had summer school every year 1-6 half-day for 1 and1/2 months. But that was in days when school year didn’t begin until after Labor Day and ended in 1st wk in May. Don’t know how much it helped what was, admittedly, an elite educational cohort–but we kids uniformly hated it–especially as class-rooms were not air-conditioned.

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