Obama Administration Advocates Longer School year

Published October 24, 2009

Schoolchildren may be singing his praises—literally—in class, but if President Obama gets his way those kids will be spending much more time in school and much less on summer break.

“Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea—every year. That’s no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy,” Obama told the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in a March speech. “I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas, . . . but the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom. If they can do it in South Korea, we can do it right here in the United States of America.”

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan later echoed the president’s sentiments, telling the Associated Press in September, “Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here. . . . I want to just level the playing field.”

Longer Days

The AP noted, however, that although students in Asian countries—which typically outperform Americans academically—have a longer school year, U.S. students log more classroom hours. According to the AP, American students spend approximately 1,146 hours in school each year, compared to barely over one thousand (1,005) hours per year by students in Japan.

On average, American students spend around 180 days in school each year, varying by state. According to the AP, students in as Japan and Hong Kong attend school 190 to 201 days each year. In a press conference on the topic, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs alluded to the possibility of adding a few additional weeks to the existing school calendar.

But critics of the extended school year proposal say more time spent in the classroom will have little impact on academic achievement if it isn’t accompanied by other education reforms.

“Cutting-edge research shows the key to student learning gains is the quality of the teacher, not the amount of time spent in school,” said Matthew Ladner, vice president of research at the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix, Arizona-based think tank.

Bigger Issues

Another concern about Obama’s proposal is it would increase federal intervention in education.

“Having children spend more time with ineffective teachers, of which we have too many, won’t produce learning gains,” Ladner said. “This is the equivalent of the Soviet planners trying to produce more steel by sending in greater amounts of iron to the mills. It didn’t work for them, and it isn’t likely to work for us.

“We’ve floundered in trying to pump in ever-greater amounts of money into the system over the past few decades, and there is no reason to think we would not do the same with an increased amount of time [spent in class],” Ladner concluded. “What we need to do is improve the productivity of the money and time we already have invested in the system.”

Overreaching Again?

The homeschooling community also expressed concern about the latest proposal for a longer school year.

“As to what homeschoolers think of it as a policy prescription, I wouldn’t presume to speak for a couple million people. We’re a far too heterogeneous lot for that,” said Brandon Dutcher, vice president of policy at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. “But there’s a sense in which this idea is no different from fuzzy math, dumbed-down history, condom distribution, or whatever public-school follies are prevailing at the moment: Homeschoolers have simply chosen not to participate.

“Obama may want to separate children from their parents for longer and longer stretches of time, but we’re teaching our children at home precisely because we want to be with them,” Dutcher added. “Obama’s plan would take us farther down the wrong road.”

Critics do see a bright spot in the proposal, however.

“I am hopeful that just as Obama’s overreaching in other areas has launched town halls and tea parties and has revived freedom-lovers everywhere, his overreaching here could end up driving more children away from government institutions and into the arms of their parents,” Dutcher said.

 Lindsey Burke ([email protected]) is a research assistant at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.