Time isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Students who spend more hours in the classroom aren't guaranteed higher test scores, and many nations that outpace the U.S. on standardized reading and math assessments keep their children in school for much less time, according to a report from the National School Boards Association.
"There is a perception among policymakers and the public that U.S. students spend less time in school. The data clearly shows that most U.S. schools require at least as much or more instructional time as other countries," said Jim Hull, senior policy analyst at the NSBA's Center for Public Education.
The findings challenge a popular theme in education debates, one espoused by federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
"Right now, children in India ... they're going to school 30, 35 days more than our students," he said at an education forum in September, explaining one reason he thinks the American education system is falling behind those of global competitors.
"Anybody who thinks we need less time, not more, is part of the problem," Mr. Duncan said.
While Mr. Duncan is technically correct that Indian students have a longer school year when measured in days, they spend fewer hours in class than almost all their American counterparts.
India requires 800 "instructional hours" at the elementary level, well below the thresholds mandated by most states. Florida and New York require 900 classroom hours for elementary students. California calls for 840, while the Texas school year lasts 1,260 hours, the report states.
There is no federally mandated number of hours in a school year, and the figures differ greatly from state to state. Eight states require less than 800 hours for elementary-school-age children, the report says.
South Korea, which boasts some of the highest scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, keeps its elementary students in class for 703 hours. Hungarian elementary students, who score only a few points below their peers in the U.S., attend school for 601 hours each year, the second-lowest among the 24 nations in the study — almost all wealthy First World countries.
As in most other nations, the school year is longer for U.S. high school students than their elementary counterparts. They spend, on average, about 1,000 hours in class each year.
In Poland, high school students need 595 hours in the classroom, the lowest of all the countries in the study, yet they top U.S. students on the math and science portions of the PISA exams, the most widely used measuring sticks for international comparisons.
Finland, Norway, Australia and other nations also show higher levels of student achievement while requiring less instruction.
The reverse is also true. Mexico requires its high school students to spend 1,058 hours in class annually, but Mexican students perform much worse on international tests. France has mandated a 1,048-hour school year, but the extra time has resulted in scores roughly equal to those of U.S. students.
Mr. Duncan made the India comparison in Washington at a Sept. 30 forum co-sponsored by the National Center on Time and Learning, which advocates for more schooling as one way to cure to the nation's educational ills.
NCTL President Jennifer Davis said Tuesday that the report, while interesting, simplifies the issue of school time.
"The picture is a lot more complicated than the data reveals," she said. "Families in South Korea, for example, spend about 10 percent of their annual income on outside tutoring, resulting in 58 percent of their students participating in those programs. A much lower percentage of U.S. students are able to access similar programs. Therefore, our country's most disadvantaged students must rely exclusively on their time in school to get the education they need."
South Korean students also report spending nearly five hours per week on a combination of "out-of-school" mathematics lessons, such as homework, and "independent study" not assigned by teachers. For U.S. students, it's about three hours a week, according to PISA.
Adding more time to the school day, Ms. Davis said, would begin to level the playing field.
But Mr. Hull, the study's sole credited author, argues that lengthening the school year, while maintaining the same curricula and teaching methods, isn't the answer.
"Providing additional time can be an effective tool for improving students' outcomes, but how that time is used is most important," Mr. Hull said.
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