Publisher's note: The article below appeared in John Hood's daily column in his publication, the Carolina Journal, which, because of Author / Publisher Hood, is inextricably linked to the John Locke Foundation.
RALEIGH For years, certain activists and interest groups have pushed North Carolina to increase the number of days students are required to attend the state's public schools. Their argument is that because other countries have longer school years, we need to increase the length of our school years to compete.
Their argument is fallacious. Fortunately, the North Carolina General Assembly has figured this out. Lawmakers enacted a bill this year
that moves the state's policy in a different direction - by taking into consideration the amount of time students spend learning in class, rather than simply the number of days they travel to and from school buildings.
The notion that American
education is hampered by an excessively short school year has been bouncing around for decades now. At first glance, it may seem plausible that fewer days spent at school means less instruction, less learning, and fewer skills mastered for future educational or occupational needs.
But there is no such thing as a standardized "school day." In some countries, schools adjourn around lunchtime. In other countries, the average school day lasts until late afternoon. Some education systems expect students to attend classes on Saturdays, but compensate for that with fewer hours on other days (which also allows parents to sign their kids up for supplemental tutoring or extracurricular activities). Finally, some school systems assign more homework than others, surely an important factor to consider when making cross-border comparisons of average time spent on learning.
These are some of the reasons why simplistic comparisons of school days don't tell us very much. Some years ago, my JLF colleague Terry Stoops pointed out
that if you measure time spent in school in terms of hours rather than days, American students spent an average of 169 hours per year receiving classroom instruction in mathematics, vs. an average of 149 hours in the rest of the industrialized world. Some high-scoring countries, such as South Korea and Japan, devoted more hours to math instruction than we did. Other high-scoring countries, such as the Netherlands and Finland, devoted fewer hours to math instruction than we did.
The rigor of the curriculum and the quality of instruction matter more than the quantity of time spent. And if we are going to focus on time spent, it makes more sense to specify a minimum number of hours per year than to compel all school systems to remain open a certain number of days per year. In some jurisdictions, it might make more sense to offer a larger number of shorter days (to allow for optional enrichment activities in the afternoons, for example). In other jurisdictions, it might make more sense to offer a smaller number of longer days (to reduce the cost of utilities and bus transportation, for example).
The available evidence does not support a policy of setting a single school calendar for every district in North Carolina. Let local officials make their own decisions about how to distribute their instructional hours across the school year, in response to the demands of parents. And let magnet schools, charter schools, and other alternative providers offer different options to families whose needs are not being met by their local district's choice of calendar.
While I would have preferred that the policy be changed through legislation other than the technical corrections bill -- and the minimum hours of instruction may have been set a bit too low -- the idea of shifting the attention from days to hours is a good idea. Yes, there is much gnashing of teeth from the state education establishment. But, shockingly, they've got this one wrong.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina's Economic Recovery