March 4, 2005

American kids need a longer school year

American children go to school only 180 days a year. While this period may have seemed more than enough for us when we were kids, it is far too short. The brevity of the American school year is obstructing our children's opportunity to learn more and ensuring our future demise in the global economy.

For the American child, less than half the year is spent in school. The most immediate consequence of this is what educators call—summertime fadeout—in other words, the stagnation or decline of children's aptitude and knowledge. Teachers do not need to be told about this. They spend the first month or two of school reviewing last year's material in order to compensate for it.

Summertime fadeout is particularly acute for students from low-income families. Past research suggests that the gap in achievement scores between high- and low-income students remains the same during the school year and then widens in the summer. In other words, during the year, every student's aptitude increases. Yet while upper- and middle-class kids continue that increase during the summer, low-income students' aptitudes stagnate or actually decrease. Thus, as Alan Krueger put it, "the entire subsequent increase in the achievement gap results from periods when school is out of session." Therefore, we should reduce the periods (namely the summer break) when students are out of school.

I am not saying that we should focus all our efforts on lengthening the school year and ignore efforts to make the time students are in school more constructive. I am saying that lengthening the school year is a crucial step toward providing real educational opportunity. It is also the first step to catching up to the industrialized nations in what should be called the brain race.

After World War II, the arms race between the U.S. and the USSR caused defense spending to command a lion's share of the national budget. Yet, in this new world order that we live in now, there is a new race—a brain race—and the goal is prosperity and privilege in the rapidly evolving global economy. Yet the brain race is unlike the arms race of yesteryear. It is not simply a sprint between two superpowers, but more akin to a city marathon—a race with several contestants that demands rigorous preparation and perseverance.

In the new global economy, two out of every three new jobs require computer knowledge. Countries all over the globe recognize this powerful fact, and as a result have been investing massive resources into their respective educational systems. China is doing it. India is doing it. The nations of Europe are doing it. America is not doing it.

But training in computers would not be sufficient for any country. The key to employment in the new economy is increased knowledge and skill that will allow workers to adjust and adapt to evolving old industries and emerging new ones. One way to achieve this level of educational excellence is to keep students in school for a longer portion of the year.

The American school year is brief when compared to the other industrialized nations. Most European nations have at least 210-day years. Japanese students spend 240 days in school each year. If we do the math, we see that by the end of high school, children in Japan will have had four more years of schooling than American kids. American students are entering the global economy at a severe and debilitating disadvantage.

While education should always be the top priority of any nation (and especially in one that exalts equal opportunity), the nature of the new global economy has brought a renewed sense of urgency to the question of American education. Other nations are leaving us in the dust. Let's hope that we do what we can to catch up.