Why Do American Schools Have Such Long Hours?
Every student knows that groggy feeling of struggling to stay awake through first period. The day drags on endlessly… until the final bell sounds. Kids in the US seem to spend more hours in school than other students around the world. But does this idea really hold up? How do students in other countries spend their time, and what can the US learn from them? U.S. students spend more time in K-12 schools than their peers in many other countries A recent study by the Pew Research Center compared ‘intended instructional time’ among 33 countries including the US. Most US states require their public schools to have between 175 and 180 days of elementary schooling per year, depending on grade level. That translates into an average of 943 hours per year. The only countries where kids spent more time in elementary school each year were: Israel, Australia, Mexico and Chile. In middle school, the average time for US kids jumps up to 1,016 hours. With so much time spent in the classroom, it would seem kids in America should be among the highest achievers. But, that’s not the case. In Japan and South Korea, kids spend an average of about 150 instructional hours less per year in school than their peers in the US. And yet, they consistently score higher on international tests. How is that possible? In both countries, competition to attend elite universities is extremely rigorous. It’s common for students to get extra help with private tutoring and night classes, known as ‘cram schools’. In Japan, ‘cram schools’ or jukus are offered to kids as young as four years old — to help get them into private kindergartens. In South Korea, some cram schools stay open as late as 11pm, so high school students can better prepare for college entrance exams. These extra hours aren’t counted as time spent in school, but evening classes are a huge part of a student’s life. In US schools, kids typically start class early – between 7:30 and 8:00am. But in other countries like Germany and Finland where academic performance is high, school schedules and hours are more flexible. In Germany, the school day starts between 7:30 and 8:15 but finishes around noon or 1pm – a tradition that dates back 250 years. While US kids eat lunch at school and stay in class up to 4pm, in Germany, kids go home for lunch and don’t return to school in the afternoon. Instead, they spend two to three hours each
day doing homework. The German school schedule might look appealing to American students, but it was rooted in the idea that mothers would be at home to help take care of the kids. Over the last decade, all-day schools have started to catch on, to match the German economy and working parents’ schedules. In Finland, classes start between 8 and 9am and run until about 1 or 2 – with a hot lunch served every day and minimal homework after school. Teachers typically give kids a 15-minute break for every 45-minutes of instruction. Research has shown that frequent breaks keep students ‘fresh’ and more focused throughout the day. Kids in America may have longer, more rigid school schedules, but at least they can relax during a 10 week long summer break. Across Europe, summer breaks range from six weeks in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK to up to 13 weeks for kids in Italy and Portugal. It’s commonly thought that the summer schedule was created to serve the American ‘farm economy’ so kids could join their families and work the fields. But that’s a myth! Kids in rural areas took their breaks during the spring and the fall, when crops were planted, and then harvested and sold. Classes were held during the summer when kids weren’t needed as much on the farm. The real reason for summer break? In cities, the summer heat drove kids out
of the sweltering classrooms — and their families out of town to escape high temperatures. By the late 19th century, school reformers argued for standardization of the calendar across urban and rural areas – resulting in the modern school schedule. Today, across the US, officials are experimenting with all kinds of schedules like year-round classes or four-day weeks with longer hours Monday through Thursday. Over the last decade, enrollment in online schools has tripled – and an estimated two million kids are now being taught at home. Supporters of homeschooling say they can cover the same amount of material in half the time, allowing kids to participate in more extra-curricular activities Virtual classrooms and online technology are driving major changes in education, ones that could impact school schedules in a dramatic way. And that school bell? It might not ring as often — or as long — in the future. [MUSIC]