from The Star-Press: U.S. students get short shrift

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March 27, 2005

U.S. Students Get Short Shrift

by William L. Bainbridge

It's always interesting at the end of an extended holiday vacation or a long summer break to have parents claim, "The vacation from school was just too long!" As one walks the halls of schools after such breaks, even the students seem to be pleased to get moving again. Too much play, television, video games and free time can be boring. Bored young people sometimes have great skills in finding trouble.

American students have a shorter school year than those living in 12 of the world's other wealthiest nations. Students in other information-age countries receive twice as much instruction as American students in core academic areas during their secondary school years.

On average, in the United States, students attend school 180 days, in the UK 190 days and in Eastern Asia 208 days. It would appear to be no coincidence that Eastern Asian students generally perform well on international comparison tests. Many of the countries where students outscored ours have instructional calendars that are 3-4 weeks longer each year than that provided for American students.

In Germany and Japan, learning is serious business and "academic time" is rarely interrupted. In the United States, conversely, students can receive a high school diploma if they devote as little as 40 percent of their school time to core academic work. Estimated focused academic hours in mathematics, science, language and social studies during the final four years of schooling include: USA 1,462, Japan 3,190, France 3,285 and Germany 3,628.

It is unreasonable to expect American students to learn as much as their overseas peers in half the time and with only 40 percent of their time focused on core academic work.

The challenge for American educators is exacerbated by the exponential increase in the amount of information our young people are expected to absorb within the 180-day school year. It seems like every year new subject matter and standards are mandated - yet the length of the school year has not increased.

The traditional calendars, distributed annually by nearly all U.S. school systems in the spring, were never intended to be driven by educational priorities. The three-month break in the summer was a necessity, enabling students to help their parents on family-owned farms. The agrarian calendar is now a barrier to student achievement.

Policy-makers should take the length of the school year under serious consideration. At the very least, policy-makers should mandate lengthening the school year in those schools where the students' overall performance on standardized tests is lower than the national or state average.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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