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The Bottom Line K-12 Redesign: School Calendar

[Editor’s Note: Other articles in the K-12 Redesign series: Perfect Time for a K-12 Redesign, A Financial Overhaul, Achievement Instead of Time, and Retooling Testing.]

The United States continues to place subpar among developed nations for K-12 student performance. Not surprisingly, U.S. students receive fewer education hours over the course of a year than those they lag behind. A revamping of the K-12 school calendar is in order.

Currently, the U.S. places 26th overall in student achievement, well behind the leading nations of China, Hong Kong, Finland, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and Canada — and just in front of Hungary, Sweden, Czech Republic, Portugal, Slovakia, Latvia, and Austria.

While the U.S. is the envy of the world based on economic and military strength, the 25 countries beating out the U.S. in K-12 student achievement probably wouldn’t consider exchanging their education system with ours. It’s not due to a lack of funding. The U.S. outspends almost every other nation on K-12 education by a significant margin — more than $720 billion (even before adding the 2020 and 2021 COVID-19 bailout monies totaling an additional $193.2 billion).

Many aspects of our government-funded and operated K-12 system are in order, starting with a financial overhaul. Additionally, recognizing teacher quality is the greatest at-school indicator of student achievement, and to address the teacher shortage, high quality, subject matter experts must be employed as K-12 adjunct teachers. Another system change warranting revision is the school calendar. In light of the COVID-19 school closures and staggering student learning loss, this redesign is not only timely but urgent.

Donald P. Nielsen, Chairman of Discovery Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education, addresses the outdated school calendar, advocating for both a longer school year and school day. Nielsen compares the U.S. education calendar to that of multiple other industrialized nations in the following excerpts from his book, Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education:

The school year is 178–180 days in length, just slightly less than half a calendar year. The school year was originally set to comply with the student’s need to help parents with farm labor and other tasks needed for the family to survive. In the early days of the twentieth century, this made sense. Young people didn’t need a lot of education to survive, and there was always plenty of work to do at home. Today, however, that is no longer the case. Only three percent of America’s families now work on the farm. Moreover, the educational needs of young people, including those who will become farmers, have grown exponentially during the twentieth century, but we still have the same school year. This school year means that our children are out of school 81 weekdays a year or about 16 school weeks: 365 – 104 (for weekends) – 180 (the school year) = 81.

Other industrialized nations have determined that a 180-day school year is insufficient. The education year for young people in other countries is quite different from what we provide to our children.

Donald P. Nielsen, Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education

Looking at the school year length of the countries leading the world in K-12 student achievement reveals a key correlation — more school days a year exist by the top performers. The following indicates the world ranking and number of school days by country:

  1. China: 221 days
  2. Hong Kong: 190 days
  3. Finland: 190 days
  4. Singapore: 193 days
  5. South Korea: 220 days
  6. Japan: 210-250 days
  7. Canada (specific to Ontario): 194 days

The trend continues with the United States coming on the radar in 26th place with 180 school days a year.

Nielsen explains the significance, offering clarity of the compounding effect:

The United States has one of the shortest school years in the developed world. Moreover, in many cases the school day is also longer in other countries. In Japan, for example, students go to school more hours per day, and more weeks per year than do American students. The net effect is that a Japanese child, upon graduation from high school, will have attended school for at least two American school years more than an American student in the same twelve-year period. In Singapore, they attend school one and a third years longer. It is little wonder that students in other countries are out-performing American students in international exams. In addition, some countries, like Finland, have extensive preschool programs designed to get all children well-prepared for learning prior to entering school.

Donald P. Nielsen, Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education

Later in the book, Nielsen outlines specific benefits of a longer school day and lengthened school year:

Recognizing that all our children need to learn more today than ever before, and recognizing that we have one of the shortest school years in the developed world, would suggest that we should extend the academic year for everyone. A simple change would be to extend the school day to seven hours (it is currently six hours or less) and to extend the school year to 205 days (from the current 178 or so days). If we did that, our children would spend 33 percent more time in the classroom. That adds up to four more years of schooling over a twelve-year educational period. I have no doubt our children would learn more and would be better equipped for post-secondary learning, if we simply lengthened our current school calendar (…assuming that we have qualified people in both the classroom and the principal’s office).

The longer day and the longer year would also help eliminate the pressing need for remedial education for those who attend college. Currently, almost half the students who attend either a four-year or two-year post-secondary school need remediation in at least one subject. This is an enormous waste of time and resources, and it adds to an already costly effort by students to obtain an advanced education.

As mentioned earlier, the longer day and the longer year would help eliminate the current feeling that teachers are underpaid. Extending the day and year, even without changing the hourly rate of compensation, would substantially increase the yearly salary of every teacher.

Finally, the longer day and the longer year would help eliminate the achievement gap (the difference in performance between many minority children and both white and Asian children), and it would reduce, if not eliminate, the dropout problem we now face.

A longer school day and longer school year may not be necessary for every student. Students who are fast learners or those who come to school extraordinarily well-prepared may not even need to attend school as long as our current school year. These students should be allowed to move through the curriculum at their own pace and may well graduate at a much earlier age. This should be encouraged as opposed to discouraged, as is now the case. Regardless of a child’s intellect or their learning readiness, all our children would benefit greatly from having more time to achieve the learning goals we set for them and to gain the skills and knowledge they will need to be productive adults.

Donald P. Nielsen, Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education

The crisis in America’s education system, neglected far too long, has now been brought into sharp focus by school closures triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. There is talk of school extending into summer months to make up for the fact that some schools are just now beginning to return to campuses two or three days of the week, often for only a half-day session. In many cases, students have gone more than one full calendar year with reduced total instruction hours, even combining in-person and online sessions — the negative effects of which we are only beginning to understand.

The current catastrophe in education, which extends beyond academics and into student mental health issues, warrants immediate action. Thanks to COVID-19, many stakeholders may be receptive to significant structural changes to the education system. A redesign of the school calendar along the lines suggested by Nielsen may be the first and simplest change to implement.

Are you concerned about educating the next generation?
The American Center for Transforming Education is a program of Discovery Institute, a non-profit organization fueled by its supporters. Will you help us advance the timely and vital work of transforming our K-12 education system so that it better serves students and their families?