NSBA study refutes perception that U.S. lags in time in school

by Paul Heiser

On Board Online • January 23, 2012

By Paul Heiser
Senior Research Analyst

At a recent Congressional hearing, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated, “Our students today are competing against children in India and China. Those students are going to school 25 to 30 percent longer than we are. Our students, I think, are at a competitive disadvantage. I think we’re doing them a disservice.”

Did Duncan get his facts right? Do students in other countries spend more time in school than students in the U.S.?

Researchers at the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education (CPE) recently looked into these questions and found some surprising results. For instance, elementary schools in Finland require only 608 hours of instruction per year, which is less than every U.S. state. Yet Finland scores near the top of nearly every international assessment.

And, contrary to Duncan’s assertion, students in China and India are not required to spend more time in school than most U.S. students, according to international data. For instance, India requires 800 instructional hours at the elementary school level, compared to 900 hours in New York State.

The following is a summary of CPE’s recent report, titled “Time in school: How does the U.S. compare?” which was written and researched by Jim Hull, CPE’s senior policy analyst, and Mandy Newport, policy intern.

International comparisons

Although each U.S. state has its own time requirements for schools, the requirements typically do not vary greatly from state to state. Most require between 175 and 180 days of school and/or between 900 and 1,000 hours of instructional time per year, depending on the grade level.

To make comparisons with other countries, the Center for Public Education focused on data from five states that enroll a significant portion of U.S. students – California, Florida, New York, Texas, and Massachusetts.

Students’ instructional time in this group of states was compared with countries that typically score high on international assessments, such as Korea, Japan, Finland and Canada, and economic competitors such as England, France, Germany and Italy.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the hours of compulsory instruction per year in these countries range from 608 hours in Finland to 926 hours in France (an average performer) at the elementary level, compared to more than 900 hours required in California, New York, Texas, and Massachusetts. At the middle school level, total hours of instruction range from 777 hours in Finland to 1,001 in Italy (an average performer). Three of the five large U.S. states – New York (990 hours), Texas (1,260 hours), and Massachusetts (990 hours) – would rank near the top of all industrialized nations in number of hours required. California and Florida would rank near the middle at 900 hours, but still above the OECD average of 886 hours. It should be noted that even at the middle school level, countries such as Japan and Korea require fewer hours (868 and 867 respectively) than most U.S. states. So by the eighth grade, students in most U.S. states have been required to receive more hours of instruction than students in most industrialized countries, including high-performing Finland, Japan and Korea.

At the high school level, there is a significant increase in the time students are required to be in school in most countries. In the U.S., most states require the same number of hours in high school as in middle school. Just as they did at the middle-school level, Finland (856 hours) and Italy (1,089 hours) required the fewest and most hours of instruction respectively. Italy’s 1,089 hours surpass those of New York, California, Massachusetts and Florida. Texas requires 1,260 hours of instruction at the high school level.

Korea requires 1,020 hours of instruction at the high school level. Nearly half (22) the states require more instructional hours than Korea. Moreover, the vast majority of states (42) require more hours of instruction than the OECD average of 902 hours. Again, there’s no evidence that students in other countries are required to receive more instruction than students in the United States.

What about India and China?

Despite Secretary Duncan’s assertion that Chinese and Indian students are “going to school 25 to 30 percent longer than we are,” the data says something different.

Students in China and India are not required to spend more time in school than most U.S. students, according to data from the OECD and World Data on Education.

For example, India’s 800 instructional hours at the elementary school level is actually less than what is required at the elementary level in California (840 hours), Florida (900 hours in grades 4-6), New York (900 hours), Texas (1,260 hours), and Massachusetts (900 hours).

The 1,000 instructional hours India requires in grades 6-8 (middle school) is similar to the requirement in most states. According to the Education Commission of the States (ECS), 35 states require at least 990 hours of instruction at the middle school level, including Texas (1260 hours), New York (990 hours) and Massachusetts (990 hours). Even though middle school students in India attend nearly 25 percent more days of school per year than U.S. students, they are not required to receive more hours of instruction.

According to the OECD, the number of weeks of instruction in China is 35, compared to the U.S.’s 36 weeks. But determining required school time in China is not so straightforward. The number of days Chinese students attend school varies by region. Some Chinese students attend school six days a week. So, even though the U.S. has more instructional weeks, Chinese students could be attending school nearly 20 percent more days per year.

Students in China may attend more days of school each year, but the key question is, are they receiving more hours of instruction? The data shows that Chinese students in grades 1-5 take 34 courses per week at 45 minutes apiece. This equates to nearly 900 hours of instruction per year, which is similar to or less than many U.S. states, including Florida, New York, Texas, and Massachusetts. In grades 6-8, Chinese students attend just under 1,000 hours of school per year, a figure similar to that of most U.S. states. As with India, the data show that Chinese students are not required to receive 25 to 30 percent more in-school instruction per year than U.S. students.


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