Americans should have longer school days, longer school years

Originally published in Newsday
In these days of tiger-mother hysteria about raising children with academic backbone, President Barack Obama has weighed in with yet another cause for paranoia. The president dropped India and China into his State of the Union speech last week, just long enough to say they are educating their children earlier and longer.

Generally, school days are longer in Asian countries, and vacation breaks, though more frequent, are shorter - no more than five weeks in summer. Subjects are introduced earlier. South Korean parents, for example, insisted that President Lee Myung-bak recruit more English teachers, so that kids could begin language lessons in the first grade.

Research supports these measures as important to kids' learning. Few educators would disagree that more time on task and shorter intervals away from the classroom are beneficial.

Obama's clear implication is that if we want to keep up, to hold on to a place of prosperity in an increasingly competitive world, we should be considering these things.

Americans have one of the shortest school years on the planet. Our kids attend school for 180 days each year, while Germany and Japan average 230 days. In South Korea - where teachers are hailed as "nation builders" - school is in session for 225 days each year.

By the time American students reach eighth grade, they've spent roughly 400 fewer days in school. So there's a lot of pressure on teachers to cover subjects in a shorter time, and in less depth.

Not coincidentally, perhaps, middle school is where American students begin to fall behind their global peers. By high school, among 30 developed nations, U.S. students rank 15th in reading, 21st in science, 25th in math and 24th in problem-solving. People who study these trends, like Education Secretary Arne Duncan, believe that the United States has stood still while others have moved past us. In an October speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Duncan said, "Here in the United States, we simply flat-lined. We stagnated. We lost our way, and others literally passed us by."

So while people of my generation might say to ourselves, "We didn't know much math, and we turned out OK," we'd be missing the point. The rest of the world is changing. We need to prepare our children for a knowledge economy.

It's not entirely bad for Americans that other countries are growing wealthier and better educated. Having a market for our products abroad is essential to our economic growth, and an educated world is a safer one.

But we don't want to be left behind. Some U.S. schools have been experimenting with more time in the classroom. Roughly 1,000 schools - including 800 charters and about 200 traditional district schools - have expanded their schedules by more than one to two hours a day, according to the National Center on Time and Learning. KIPP Academy, one charter success story that started in the Bronx, requires parents to sign a contract saying they will not pull kids out for a family vacation.

Expect to see more of this. As Congress moves to reauthorize and rework No Child Left Behind, the Obama administration is pushing for flexibility for school districts to break from established norms. In November, the New York State School Boards Association advocated a longer school day and year "where it will serve students well."

Midafternoon dismissal times and long summer breaks are impractical holdovers from an agrarian past - increasingly so, as more homes are led by single parents or two working parents. It's time to dust off those problem-solving skills and put them back to work.