summer staycation?

I have always advocated higher standards of education; my experiences as a student and as a tutor reinforce my stance. I’ve always believed that emphasis on understanding material, not just making the grade, would yield a better student.

Given that I attained my baccalaureate degree in electrical engineering technology from an institution featuring year-round instruction and few breaks, you’d think I’d agree with President Obama’s proposal to curtail summer vacation for America’s students. Well, think again.

I first heard of this proposal from my sister, who heard it from a Facebook friend. It surprised me, but then I came across this article which left no doubt – our President wants us to stay in school longer. His rationale?

Obama and Duncan say kids in the United States need more school because kids in other nations have more school.

“Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here,” Duncan told the AP. “I want to just level the playing field.”

(Emphasis mine.)

For the record, Duncan refers to Arne Duncan, Education Secretary.

Clearly, President Obama and company believe that more school days would yield more productive students. Not only is this assertion incorrect (to a degree), it’s also a logical fallacy. I will now explain why.

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducts a worldwide assessment every three years; they test three core subjects – mathematics, science, and reading. Thousands of fifteen-year-old students from many countries take this assessment; results are then compiled by nation. A look at the 2003 results showed that the 95% confidence interval for the ranks of U.S. scores for math, reading, and science, respectively (out of 40 nations) were 25-28, 12-23, and 20-27. A closer look shows that not all the top-ranked nations had longer school days. For example, Canada and Australia scored higher than the U.S. in all three categories but have similarly long school years; moreover, this article shows that instructional time in many high-performing countries is comparable to – and in some cases less than – instructional time in the United States.

More surprising is the front-runner in all three categories. Sure, Japan, China, and South Korea are up there – and all three nations have well over 200 days of school per year. However, one nation has held the top spot in all three ranks both in 2003 and 2006 – and that’s Finland.

An article published tomorrow (you figure it out) explains how Finland consistently excels in these assessments. First, all Finnish teachers are required to have Master’s degrees. Certainly a good start, but there’s more:

  • The country provides free education to all students (of course, such comes out of their taxes); wealth does not determine education’s quality.
  • Plenty of resources (such as libraries); more on that later.
  • Very low dropout and course repetition rates (0.5% and 2%, respectively).

But what of the length of the school year? Per the article:

  • There are 190 days in the Finnish school year, just 10 days longer than the U.S. school year.
  • Only 4-7 hours of instruction per day.

It doesn’t end there; the AP article I first linked states that U.S. students have 1,146 instructional hours per year. Finland? Roughly 861 hours/year; the research article also suggests that no significant correlation between the length of the school year and academic performance exists. There was, however, stronger correlation between the length of the school day and academic performance. Additionally, the findings suggest it’d be more expensive to lengthen the school year than to lengthen the school day.

In short, it’d be more profitable to have longer school days and keep summer vacation than to truncate summer vacation in favor of a longer school year.

Thing is, such has already been implemented in the U.S.! Comparing the TIMSS data from 2003 with current data shows that U.S. instruction time has increased by an extra 85 hours/year (from 1,061 in 2003 to 1,146 now).

Thus, I believe emphasis should not be placed on the length of the school year, but on the strength of the curriculum. I have always said that making the grade means nothing if there is no understanding behind it! Subsequently, I believe that the president (as well as local education departments) should focus more on:

  • Placing emphasis on understanding material, not “teaching to the test.”
  • Ensuring that students have the resources and materials required for competent education in all subject areas. Poor performance is more closely correlated with lack of resources than lack of school time.
  • Ensuring that teachers are knowledgeable and able to motivate students to learn as they teach them.

After all, when it comes to education, why should we settle for anything less?

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