more school days

44 percent said they were opposed, and eight percent were undecided.

Read together, these figures record a sea change in public feeling, but the dike has not exactly burst; state legislatures and local school committees have not rushed to do anything dramatic. I can offer a personal perspective on the reasons why. As a Massachusetts state legislator, I discuss education with parents, children, and teachers, and as someone who believes in the need for a dramatic extension of the school year, I hold up the unpopular end of many conversations. Education involves matters intimately familiar to people—their kids, the rhythms of family life, their own memories of school—and everybody has an opinion.

Asked how she and her neighbors would feel about lengthening the school year, a constituent of mine, a parent of three school-aged daughters, stiffens and says, “People don’t want their options taken away from them. They want freedom of choice in these things.” A student just out of high school, told about the long school year in Japan, says, “I don’t want to be Japanese . I like my summers. I work hard enough as it is.”

If these soundings and others like them are any guide, America’s attachment to the 180-day school year is still strong. In a world already reeling from future shock, the notion of extending the year seems punitive, an assault on the idea of summer itself . It raises the specter of joyless cramming . It implies that American parents have somehow failed their children.

Still, with people worried about the direction of the country, the strength of the economy, and the emerging competition from our friends in Europe and Asia, it is time to give the matter another look. It is time, too, to examine the peculiarly American roots of the dug-in resistance to change, and to consider how, in an era of short money and diminished confidence in government, the switch to a longer school year might be achieved.

The accumulating data on comparative education, itself a relatively new preoccupation of policy specialists, point up two trends. First, compared with their peers in Asian and European countries, American students stand out for how little they work . Second, compared with Asians and Europeans, American students stand out for how poorly they do.

Bottom Dogs


of sources, of the varying number of days in a standard school year. This list was hard to put together—which tells us something about the neglect of this subject in U.S. educational circles.

                    Japan 243                                  New Zealand 190

                    West Germany 226—240          Nigeria 190

                    South Korea 220                       British Columbia   185

                    Israel 216                                   France 185

                    Luxembourg 216                      Ontario 185

                    Soviet Union 211                      Ireland 184

                    Netherlands 200                       New Brunswick     182

                    Scotland 200                            Quebec 180

                    Thailand 200                            Spain 180

                    Hong Kong 195                       Sweden 180

                    England/Wales 192        United States 180

                    Hungary 192                            French Belgium     175

                    Swaziland    191                        Flemish Belgium    160

                    Finland 190

Of course, bare counts of school days do not tell us everything we might like to know about academic calendars. Japan’s Ministry of Education, Science and Culture prescribes a minimum of 210 calendar days of classroom instruction, including half-days on Saturdays. Local school boards have the option of adding more time, and typically call for a total of about 240 days, often using the bulk of the additional days for field trips, sports activities, student festivals, and graduation ceremonies. In the United States the 180-day school year must accommodate field trips, school-wide assemblies, in-service training for teachers, and anything else that needs doing, reducing the real number of days of classroom instruction to something considerably less than 180.

The gap in classroom time between Japan and the United States widens when student attendance at juku is taken into account Juku are the private, profit-making tutorial services that have become ubiquitous in Japan since the 1970s. Operating after school and on weekends----but in such a way as to parallel the regular education system—they provide enrichment, preparatory, remedial, and cram courses to an education-hungry young popu-lation. By ninth grade more than 47 percent of Japanese students attend juku, averaging five hours a week in addition to regular school time.

Presumably, multinational counts of days of instruction will be refined, in time, to provide more detail. In the meantime, an observer might note several things about the list presented above. Highly ranked are Japan, West Germany, South Korea, and Israel, four nations noted for their discipline and drive. Hungary, an Eastern-bloc country whose quality of education has not received much attention in the West, also asks for a good deal of time from its students . Swaziland and Nigeria, members of the Third World, are reasonably demanding. And the United States, which has been known to celebrate its own capacity for discipline and drive, comes in near the bottom. Conceivably such an order of finish supports the cherished American idea that the Japanese have a deviant propensity to work harder than almost anyone else. In any event, it certainly supports the idea that Americans have a deviant propensity to work less than almost anyone else.

That there should be an identifiable American school year at all is remarkable in itself. The federal system in the United States is supposed to encourage variety, in line with the famous dictum by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis:

          “There must be power in the States and the Nation to remould, through

           experimentation, our economic practices and institutions to meet ever

          changing social and economic needs. ... ... . It isone of the happy

          incidents of the federal system that a single courageous State may,

          if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and

          economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

State law , rather than any act of Congress, governs the number of days that a given school system is open. Brandeis would approve, we may assume. But no single courageous state with a choosy citizenry has undertaken to remold its schools to meet changing social and economic needs. Instead, conformity rules with an iron hand. According to the Education Commission of the States , fully forty-six of the fifty states mandate school years of 175 to 180 days or the equivalent number of hours. One state requires just over 180; three require under 175.

The lack of variety is all the more extraordinary given that state law typically prescribes the number of school days as a minimum. This means that thousands of towns, cities, counties, and independent school districts in the United States are legally free, sometimes subject to state review, to extend the school year—to, say, somewhere within the West German range of 226 to 240 days. Yet to judge from the available literature, across the entire range of American education, embracing the fifty states and the thousands of subdivisions within those states, nary a public school system has broken the mold in a lasting way . Occasional reports, scattered sightings, are made of useful but tentative experiments. Beginning with the 1988—1989 academic year two inner-city elementary schools in New Orleans have operated on a 220-day calendar, and this past spring the Stanley elementary school in Kansas City, Kansas, won an RJR Nabisco Foundation grant to add forty-six days to its school year. Presumably these are approximations of the European and Asian models, involving more classroom instruction for everybody. They are also precarious, with no permanent basis in law, no institution-alized existence in the local community, and no long-term funding mechanisms.

Elsewhere we find programs built on the traditional notion of summer school, either for remedial purposes or for enrichment, with participation voluntary except for students who fail courses. These represent valuable extensions of educational time, but when attendance is significantly less than 100 percent of the class, the regular curriculum cannot be lengthened and enriched without throwing the next fall’s semester into chaos.

Some will maintain that uniformity is a boon to the mobile American family, as it moves from community to community and state to state. But a uniform school year does not provide a uniform education, or anything like it, because the curriculum varies from place to place. The mobile American family is guaranteed a generous, mobile summer vacation, but that is it.


I N THE 1960s, THE INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE EVALUATION OF EDUCATIONAL ACHIEVEMENT (lEA) began to tackle the thorny problem of assessing educational quality across the gulfs of nationality, language, and culture . The undertaking, enormous in its complexity, produced the first installments of a multinational data base on how the world’s children are doing in mastering the common languages of the emerging world economy: mathematics and the sciences.

When the lEA conducted its most recent mathematics assessment, in 1981—1982, the results were disheartening for Americans. In an eighth-grade match-up, among twenty school systems surveyed, the American students ranked tenth in arithmetic, twelfth in algebra, and sixteenth in geometry . Japan, our principal economic competitor, finished first in all three of these categories. In an intimation of the real economic times that might lie ahead, Hungarian students finished ahead of the Americans in all three categories. Even Thailand, until recently considered a Third World country rather than a member of the thriving Pacific rim, saw its students finish ahead of the Americans in geometry.

These international comparisons have attracted their share of critics. For example, one point commonly made is that secondary education in the United States is universal—that the system is open to all children, with 1988 figures showing tha t 71 percent of those who begin high school go on to graduate—while systems elsewhere are closed or elite, with a consequent creaming effect that inflates test scores.

The universality of American education is, in fact, a great potential strength. Self- congratulation is not in order, however. Other nations, including Japan, currently set the pace for universality. According to 1984 figures from the U.S. Department of Education, 88 percent of Japanese students who began high school went on to graduate. Moreover, in part because of a tendency to “track” students into either academic or vocational channels, and in part because of the unevenness of the curriculum in our peculiarly decentralized educational network, the U.S. system winds up being inclusive without necessarily being either egalitarian or first-rate. As one aspect of its 1981—1982 study, the lEA identified twelfth-grade students from various countries who were engaged in the serious study of mathematics, defined for the United States as those in classes requiring as prerequisites at least two years of algebra and one year of geometry. By such a definition a strikingly small proportion of the American student body qualified for this part of the study. According to the LEA, a serious mathematics education was provided to 50 percent of Hungarian students, 30 percent of students in British Columbia, 15 percent of Finnish students—but only 13 percent of students in the United States.

Defenders of the status quo also argue a contrary point: not that the United States does well by its great mass of students hut that our best students achieve as much as any in the world. Quite apart from the irony of a 200-year-old democracy’s arguing in terms of the performance of its elites, the data give defenders shaky grounds for hope. Keeping in mind that the American contingent in the lEA’s comparison of serious twelfth-grade math students is only 13 percent of the relevant U.S. age group, consider a representative portion of the results for three subjects:


( U. S. 12th -Grade Equivalent)


Advanced Algebra                      Functions/Calculus                  Geometry


I. Hong Kong                          1. Hong Kong                          1. Hong Kong

2. Japan                                    2. Japan                                    2. Japan

3. Finland                                 3 . England/Wales                     3. England/Wales

4. England/Wales                     4. Finland                                 4. Sweden

5. Flemish Belgium                 5. Sweden                                5. Finland

6. Israel                                    6. New Zealand                        6. New Zealand

7. Sweden                                7. Flemish Belgium                 7. Flemish/Belgiu

8. Ontario                                 8. Ontario                                 8. Scotland

9. New Zealand                        9. Israel                                    9. Ontario

10. French Belgium                  10. French/Belgium                  10. French Belgiu

11. Scotland                              11. Scotland                              11. Isreal

12. British Columbia                12. United States                   12. United States

13. Hungary                              13. Thailand                              13. Hungary

14. United States                    14. Hungary                              14. British Colum

15. Thailand                              15. British Columbia                15. Thailand

The students were tested in three other areas of mathematics as well. The results were similar to those above, with the United States finishing below the average all across the board.

In an alternative effort to measure the performance of elites, the lEA calculated the average achievement score of the top one percent of the twelfth-graders in each country. The United States came out as the lowest of any country for which data were available. In other words, our most able students scored lower in algebra than their top-notch peers in any other country. The findings were little better in calculus, for which the same analysis was conducted.

The IEA did a science assessment in 1983—1986. Among ten-year-olds in fifteen countries where tests were conducted, the Americans ranked eighth. Confirming indications in other studies that American students fall further behind with every passing year in school, our fourteen-year-olds were in a three-way tie, with students from Singapore and Thailand, for fourteenth place among students from seventeen countries . In yet another attempt to evaluate our elites, the lEA surveyed the scores of a special group of secondary school pupils who could be considered advanced science students: seniors pursuing a second year of study within a particular discipline. In rankings with similar students from twelve other nations, the Americans placed eleventh in chemistry, ninth in physics, and last in biology.

The association between American effort and American results is illuminated by “Opportunity to Learn” studies which seek to identify the material that has actually been taught to various groups of students and the proportion of the intended curriculum that the teacher has managed to cover . OTL researchers focus on a practical question that puzzles parents and students all over America: Why is it that no class ever seems capable of actually getting through its textbook, or even coming close? Why is so much material covered in a rush, in the closing weeks of the year? Granted, books are big in order to give teachers a choice of lessons, but the sheer volume of material left uncovered is disquieting. Accompanied by Chris Berner, a member of my staff, I was recently ‘teacher for a day” in a seventh-grade class in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was the end of the school year. Students reported that they had reached page 126 of a 400-page math text. They were halfway through the social-studies book.

The lEA’s data on international math achievement become a little less perplexing when analyzed in accordwith OTL principles . OTL researchers asked the students from each country who took part in the exercise, Had the mathematics required to answer each question on the international exam been taught to them at any time in class? The findings were fascinating. The typical Japanese twelfth- grade student had been taught how to solve 92 percent of the problems on the tests for algebra, geometry, and calculus. In England and Wales the comparable figure was 85 percent, in Hungary 67 percent, in Thailand 63 percent—and in the United States only 54  percent.

It seems, then, that students in other countries master more material largely because they get further along in their courses . OTL analysis lends authority to a conclusion that the lay person might reach as a matter of plain common sense: imperfect as American education might be, forty or so more days of it a year would mean more material covered and more material learned. The United States faces a real time-in-school deficit every bit as serious as the trade deficit and the balance-of- payments problem: each year, American children receive hundreds of hours less schooling than many of their European or Asian mates, and the resulting harm promises to be cumulative and lasting.


I F THE INTERNATIONAL DATA LOOK BLEAK AND OTL analysis points to a lack of learning time as crucial, the question must be asked, Why, when our students do so badly, do we continue to ask them to do so little?

In 1988, looking back at the five years that had passed since the report A Nation At Risk wa s issued, William Bennett remarked on the lack of progress:

                    A Nation At Risk also noted that it is not unusual for

                    high school students in other industrialized countries to

                    spend eight hours a day at school, 220 days each year.

                    In the United States, by contrast, a typical school day lasts

                    six hours, and the school year runs 175 to 180 days.

                    A Nation At Risk recommended that school districts and

                    state legislatures consider increasing instructional time by

                    implementing a seven-hour school day and a 200- to 220-day

                    school year, a recommendation that has been largely ignored.

                    American teachers prefer their current nine- or ten- month

                    contracts, and their union leaders have opposed most legis-

lative efforts to lengthen the school day or year. Since 1983,

                    such proposals have been considered in 37 states. But a longer

                    school year has been adopted in only nine of them—and all of

                    those states merely extended their unusually short calendars

                    to the more common 180-day standard. Only five states

                    have lengthened the school day—none to more than six-and-

                    a-half hours.


Bennett’s finger-pointing should extend to the average citizen. As the Gallup numbers show, for years there has been weak public demand for more education, “more” meaning greater amounts of time spent in the schools helping children to learn. Once the public realizes the need for change and momentum builds, the school year and the school day will be lengthened, regardless of which other interests are opposed.

The 1989 Gallup poll hints at the beginning of a turn-around in public opinion— but only the beginning. Many parents would insist that their reservations are immediate and practical. They see summer as special, as a time for young people to be with their families, to do something that helps them grow—even if it is only attending summer camp—or to earn some money. Push these parents a little, and the objections become more emotional: kids need a chance to play, darn it, and they’re under1a lot of pressure as it is. What happened to the idyllic side of child-hood? Is life to be all work? When will there be time for young people to explore the quirky and personal magic of their own creativity?

These questions are hard, and those of us who believe in the necessity of more schooling must not answer them glibly. But these questions are also rhetorical, and loaded. They rely for their effect on an idealized image of childhood which does not correspond to the down-to-earth, day-to-day summer experience of even middle-class kids. A school environment can be humane and true to the curiosity of children, and learning to read and write and compute and analyze is the key to unlocking the creative urge, not squelching it . For that matter, extended schooling can allow time not only for more instruction but also for more play. And surely summer is special for many families. But a school year that stretched into the last week of July would still leave more than a month for a family vacation, a stint at camp, or both . If Americans could tolerate going to school Saturday mornings, the break could start earlier.

As it is, American kids have one of the longest summer vacations in the Western world. Like everything in life, this comes at a cost. For years educators have devoted considerable effort to documenting a phenomenon that many parents know from practical observation: the tendency of kids to forget during the summer what they learned in the spring. In 1978 a study of retention conducted for the New York Board of Regents reported, “Numerous research studies indicate that long extended summer vacations result in forgetting much that was learned during the regular school year... .. . In order to start a new year effectively, teachers in most elementary schools tend to devote four or more weeks [to] review and reteaching activities.”

As for earning money, some students hold jobs because of genuine financial need, and others because their parents believe that doing so builds character. But many students work to maintain a level of conspicuous consumption that they and their families would do well to avoid. In any event, given the evolving world economy and the changing nature of employment, the financial stakes for all these students figure to be the same: to be strapped for today or to be strapped for life. Personal income correlates with education and one’s position in what is fast becoming a global economy; we must expect the time to come when young people in Germany, Hungary, Ja pan, South Korea, and the United States will compete more or less directly to do the same work, with the jobs going to those who are best prepared to hold them. A nation intent on having its men and women able to afford a decent standard of living will insist that adolescent earnings be forgone today so that adult earnings are not lost tomorrow. The stakes are very high. The urgent priority of young Americans today is to learn.

Public resistance to more education rides on a surface of practical objection but draws its power from deeper sources: American mythology, defined as the country’s collection of ideas about itself; American complacency; and, of late, American defensiveness. A subsidiary issue is the resistance of the American educational establish ment, both the theorists at the university level and the ranks of unionized teachers at the elementary and secondary levels. Then comes the question of money: how to finance a change that must bring with it more pay for teachers, curriculum redesign, and capital improvements like air-conditioning.

A bit of educational history is in order. In many states school attendance was not mandatory for much, if not most, of the nineteenth century. Many schools operated almost in the fashion of public libraries: that is to say, they were open for a great deal of the year but did not require local youths to be on the premises . Children would drop in and out as family responsibilities and personal inclinations dictated.

In 1847 Horace Mann, an educational reformer serving the state of Massachu-setts as secretary of the Board of Education, in his annual report called for a mandatory minimum period of school attendance by students. Five years later (1852 ) the Massachusetts legislature enacted the nation’s first compulsory- attendance law, requiring parents to send their children to school for at least twelve weeks.

Similar mandates were established throughout the country, but they could still be outdone by truancy; the United States was one place where submission to the regimentation of formal schooling was regarded with great ambivalence. Spending time in a classroom was not easy to reconcile with an affection for personal freedom and wide-open spaces, especially when the work involved abstruse subjects like math and grammar. Huckleberry Finn said it pretty well:

                    Well, three or four months run along, and it was well

                     into the winter, now. I had been to school most all the

                     time, and could spell, and read, and write just a little,

                     and could say the multiplication table up to six times

                     seven is thirty-five, and I don’t reckon I could ever get

                     any further than that if I was to live forever. I don’t take

                     no stock in mathematics, anyway. At first I hated the

                     school, but by and by I got so I could stand it. Whenever

                     I got uncommon tired I played hookey, and the hiding I

                     got next day done me good and cheered me up.

Call it Huck Finn’s law: the authentic American flour ishes in spite of all the schooling, not because of it. Of course, the demands of modern industrial life made inroads nevertheless . From 1890 to 1974 school enrollment among American fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds—the children around Huck Finn’s age—grew from seven percent to 92 percent. In the same period the average length of the school year in the United States increased from 135 days to 179, and the average number of days of real attendance increased from 81 to 160.

The short and thoroughly modern life of the 180-day school year undercuts the theory that it survives from a time when the academic calendar followed the agricul -tural cycle. Not even this degree of intention can he discerned. Instead, the historical record gives evidence that the period of mandatory school attendance increased steadily over time as it was shaped by two broad influences: on the one hand, the always growing demand for an educated work force, and on the other, the instinct to spare children from formal schooling during the hottest months of the year, regardless of whether they had any role to play in farming. Even if the agricultural theory fit the facts, it would not explain very much. Other countries have agricultural pasts too, but this has not stunted the growth of their educational calendars.

It is true that the common public school spread rapidly in nineteenth-century America. The ideal product, however, was not the academic high achiever but the yeoman-citizen able to read and write well enough to be self-sufficient and to express his own opinion. Learning in and of itself was not thought to be the key to success; native ingenuity and self-directed hard work were. Richard Hofstadter, in his Anti-intellectualism in American Life, out-lined “the ideal assumptions” of the case against getting a lot of education.

Intellectuals, it may be held, are pretentious, conceited, effeminate, and snobbish; and very likely immoral, dangerous, and subversive. The plain sense of the common man, especially if tested by success in some demanding line of practical work, is an altogether adequate substitute for, if not actually much superior to, formal knowledge and expertise acquired in the schools.

Huck Finn’s special dislike for mathematics is an American refrain picked up more recently by social-science research. Harold Stevenson, of the University of Mich -igan, has done pathbreaking work in comparing Japanese, Taiwanese, and American attitudes toward learning and education. In 1987 he observed, Americans generally do not consider mathematics as important as reading in elementary school. According to our classroom observations, American teachers spend more class time on reading (language arts) than on mathematics at both first and fifth grades. Chinese and Japanese teachers, however, divide their time more evenly between these two subjects. . . . Despite the greater amount of time devoted to language arts in the U.S. as compared to the Asian countries, American mothers most frequently said that reading should be given more emphasis in elementary school. Japanese mothers were nearly three times as likely as American mothers to mention a need for greater emphasis on mathematics.

Even in the era of high tech, American mythology has adapted cleverly rather than given way . According to Hofstadter, the American scientist singled out for respect is the practical person who moves quickly to translate exotic research into something commercially marketable. Thomas Edison and the electric light, the Wright brothers and the airplane, Steven Jobs and the user-friendly computer—it is the figure of the American inventor-entrepreneur, not the American scientist-thinker, who nicely reconciles, in a technological age, our drive for achievement with our mistrust of the bookworm and the nerd.

The country’s lukewarm feelings about academic high achievers, Hofstadter argued, arose out of our democratic and egalitarian traditions . As the nineteenth century drew to a close, this instinct to downplay intellectual effort had to confront two powerful new forces, the theories of Darwin and of Freud. Both lent authority to the idea that native predispositions, aptitudes, and innate traits—including intellect —were critically important. In truth, these theories seemed to say, people really are quite different from one another. Divisive as the message might have been, Americans found a way to reconcile it with egalitarianism. A belief in innate traits and personal aptitudes could be said, after all, merely to mimic the individualistic strain in American culture. People might be different, and some might be stronger intellectually than others, but who cared in a country where success could come through grit and hard work?


A LINE OF REASONING THAT SOUGHT TO MIN1MIZE THE importance of intellect while accepting high-powered theories of very differences was bound to break down as education and academic achievement came to mean more and more in the economy. In present-day American culture many observers like Harold Stevenson and Merry White, a professor of sociology at Boston University, see a terrible inversion at work. Embracing the credo that every child is different, we make early efforts to pinpoint differences in ability and interests. Then we channel children into tracks according to what we think we have found. Thus a practice rooted in the American celebration of the individual operates to subvert the real-life chances of many American students.

Stevenson, detecting an infatuation with ability grouping in his interviews with parents and students, wrote, Compared to the Asians we interviewed, Americans placed more emphasis on differences in innate ability as the basis for variations in achievement. American children, for example, were much more likel~’ than Chinese or Japanese children to agree with the statement, The tests you take can show how much or how little natural ability you have.” Conversely, American children were least likely to agree that “everybody in your class has the same amount of ability in math. These beliefs are in line with those of their mothers. American mothers did not agree that people have the same amount of ability in mathematics. When asked about the role of effort, Chinese and Japanese mothers were more likely than American mothers to believe that any student can be good at mathematics if he or she works hard enough. American mothers also expressed stronger beliefs than Chinese and Japanese mothers that their children were born with their math abilities.

If aptitude rather than effort is seen as the key to achievement, the result will be to undermine the work ethic, at least as it applies to education. Time spent in a classroom will not seem very important.

As Stevenson indicates, among those who disagree with Americans on the relative importance of effort are none other than the Japanese. Their culture puts little stock in the notion of traits and aptitudes, placing paramount emphasis instead on what White calls “the path of pure endeavor.” Here is a Japanese challenge more profound than economic competition. Granted, the Japanese have the advantage of a homogeneous population, but they still deserve credit for using the work ethic as a way around the politics of class. In stressing equal opportunity based on effort—and, for that matter, in being unapologetic boosters for effort itself—the Japanese threaten to embarrass us, by taking aspects of the American creed and applying them with more conviction than we do.

Today in American culture hard work is good if it is done for oneself or one’s family, whether to meet one’s own standards or to better oneself economically. We put great stock in individual striving and individual freedom. But hard work is not so good when it is done at the behest of others (except possibly in wartime). No one gets easy points in this country for toeing the line, taking orders, or going along with authority.

It follows that there is a deeply ambivalent reaction—part of human nature but exaggerated in the American character—to being told by elites to “work harder.” The situation is exacerbated because so many of today’s parents grew up in the 1960s, when anti-establishment values were at their zenith. Before the 1960s came the Eisenhower era, condemned for excessive conformity, for the oppressive sameness documented in William Whyte’s The Organization Man and David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd. In the Baby Boom generation’s put-down of present day Japanese values there is an echo of the same generation’s put-down of the American 1950s.


A MERICAN MYTHOI.OGY MAKES CO\IMON CAUSE WITH another formidable force: American complacency. Harold Stevenson’s work in 1979—1980 with children, mothers, and teachers from three countries suggests the problem, by contrasting performance and attitudes. In one statistical exercise he rated the mathematics achievement of equal numbers of students from Japan, Tjiwan, and the United States. Among the top 100 first-graders there were only fifteen American children. Almost unbelievably, among the top 100 fifth- graders there was only one American child . In contrast, among the bottom 100 first-graders fifty-eight were American, and among the bottom 100 fifth-graders sixty-seven were American.

There was more. The shocker came in the attitude surveys . More than 40 percent of the American mothers were “very satisfied” with how their children were doing in school, whereas less than five percent of the Japanese and Chinese mothers were “very satisfied.” Nearly a third of the Chinese and Japanese mothers said they were “not satisfied” with their children’s performance, but only 10 percent of the American mothers expressed dissatisfaction.

The jarring enthusiasm of the Americans persisted when it came to attitudes toward the quality of the schools themselves. Ninety-one percent judged that the school was doing an “excellent” or a “good” job. Only 42 percent of the Chinese mothers and 39 percent of the Japanese mothers were this positive.

 Stevenson’s paradox—low measures of student performance and high measures of parental satisfaction—prompted him to utter a despairing thought: Given these findings, one wonders how practical it is to push now for educational reform in the United States. Schools can only respond to the needs expressed by the parents and citizens who provide their financial support. There is little indication in these data that large numbers of American parents find sufficient basis for dissatisfaction to alter their attitudes toward American education.


T HE GOOD NEWS---- IN 1990---- IS THAT AMERICAN COMPLACENCY is giving way; these days everybody talks about the hardworking Asians and the buoyant Europeans. The bad news is that the newest emotions are American discouragement, defensiveness, and paranoia. Polling in 1989 showed nearly half the public in this country subscribing to the notion that the United States is in “decline.” But that doesn’t mean we admire the competition. Rather than acknowledging that Americans put out less effort than do students in a multitude of other countries, we define the issue narrowly, as a choice between our values and those of our strongest competitor, Japan. Having set up the straw man, we then bridle at the thought of “becoming Japanese,” shorthand for our fear of being dragooned into conformity and workaholism, all in the name of meeting stiff economic competition.

Instead of examining Japanese culture, rejecting many of its features but accepting others in order to improve our own, we Americans focus on claims that the Japanese are imitators, not creators; that they pirate our technology; and that they cheat to gain advantage in international trade. These impressions are used time and time again to disparage proposals to extend the school year. All you ever get by doing that, people argue, is a pocketful of misery, in terms of uncreative children and diminishing interest in class work..

Such defensiveness misses the mark, and should be forsworn so that we might indulge instead an American habit. After all, we are energetic imitators of the good ideas of others, born appropriators of bits and pieces of Old World practice, great borrowers from the different cultures that have shaped our immigrants. In 1810- 1812 did not Francis Cabot Lowell, of Massachusetts, give himself a grand tour of textile plants in the British Isles, memorize the design of the great power looms in order to outwit English laws against technology transfer, and return home to establish the first modern factory in America? Robert Dalzell, Jr., a historian at Williams College, writes that Lowell’s feat is viewed as a “stunning act of industrial piracy.” We Americans take pride in our pragmatism, our flexibility; no fixed principle is more important to us than the principle that nothing is fixed. If there are things dogged and determined in Japanese attitudes that we admire, if there are features of their educational system that seem to work—even if there are few points to be gleaned about equal opportunity—we should be shamelessly American and adapt them for ourselves.

In any event, dwelling on the negative cannot carry us very far. Our understanding of the way the Japanese live is growing more sophisticated all the time, and some of the self-serving truisms of today arc not likely to hold up very well. One staple of conversation among American parents is the supposed association between the rigors of Japanese education and suicide among Japanese youths. The figures were once more troubling than they are today. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Education, in 1975 the suicide rates in Japan for the age groups ten to fourteen, fifteen to nineteen, and twenty to twenty-four were all higher than the U.S. rates. But by 1984 the Japanese numbers for the three age groups had gone down and the American numbers had more or less held steady, with the result that the American suicide rates were higher for all three age groups.

Japanese students do seem to he under considerable pressure to excel, but they do not seem especially unhappy, at least in the early elementary grades. Merry White, in her short and useful book The Japanese Educational Challenge: A Commit-ment to Children, wrote, Because of our preconceptions of Japanese schooling, a walk into a typical fifth grade classroom in Japan may shock us. We might easily expect an environment suffused with rote learning and memorization, a structured and disciplined setting with an authoritarian teacher in control. This is far from the reality of most classrooms. Walking into a fifth grade math classroom, I was at first surprised: the mood was distinctly chaotic, with children calling out, moving spontaneously from their desks to huddled groups chatting and gesticulating . An American teacher would wonder “Who’s in charge here?” and would be surprised to see the teacher at the side of the room, calmly checking papers or talking with some students. When I came to understand what all this meant, I realized that the noise and seeming chaos was in fact devoted to the work of the class; children were shouting out ideas for possible answers, suggesting methods, exclaiming excitedly over a solution, and not, as we might suppose, gossiping, teasing each other, or planning something for recess or after school . The teacher was not at all upset as long as total engagement in the appointed set of tasks persisted; she actually felt that the noise level was a measure of her success in inspiring the children to focus and work.

At its national convention last July the American Federation of Teachers criticized “treadmill schedules” that set out to cover the curriculum at all costs and do not provide teachers or students with adequate time for such things as reflection and planning. The proposed solution implied a reduction in teaching time. A far better one is suggested by the work of James Stigler and Ruth Baranes, observers of Japanese, Taiwanese, and American classrooms. Their research points to one of the contributions to quality made possible by a quantitative improvement in the school year: the pace at any given moment can allow for leisurely teaching and leisurely learning. Only teachers in Japan, they reported, were ever observed spending an entire forty-minute math lesson on one or two problems. In fact, their analysis revealed that the typical Japanese math lesson was less hectic than the American. “Japanese teachers,” they wrote, “seem not to rush through material, but rather are constantly pausing to discuss and explain.”

This is not to say that at the high school level the pace is relaxed. While the payoff for hard work is great in terms of student achievement, the side effects generate controversy and soul-searching among the Japanese public. Recently a fifteen- year-old girl died when she rushed to get into school just at starting time and a teacher, intent on locking out late students, slammed a heavy metal school gate on her head. The resulting uproar, which focused on the enforcement of rigid rules and discipline, suggests two general truths about education in present-day Japan: first, things are very far from perfect, and second, the system is not unyielding but subject to pressure and criticism—and presumably improvement as well.

American efforts to debunk the achievement orientation of the Japanese always seem to overreach. After all, Americans have taken considerable satisfaction in their own culture’s work ethic. Any present-day rationalizations that, in effect, concede the willingness of the Japanese to outwork Americans probably concede more than this society can afford. The current stage of anxious anticipation is still an early one. In not so many more years, if things do not change, the evidence of Asian and possibly European superiority, first in economic productivity and then in standard of living, will be overwhelming. The creed of American exceptionalism is powerful and volatile; it is an open question whether this society can exist successfully with the conviction that it is second-rate. If the price of avoiding psychological dislocation later is to adjust the culture now in order to make more room for academic achievement, the price would seem to be well worth paying.

James Fallows, the Washington editor of THE ATLANTIC argues that American defensiveness is wasted motion. Fallows contends that the world can become multi-polar, and can have many thriving economies. The United States need not be unilaterally dominant in order for American culture to work. Neither must we be slavish in our imitation of the Japanese. Presumably Americans will perform best in an environment that stresses openness and freedom, as opposed to the conformity bred by the Japanese system. In other words, we can, to echo the title of Fallows’s recent book, succeed by becoming “more like us.” But we do have to succeed. The bottom line for learning and working had better be the same: more or less equivalent effort leading to more or less equivalent results.



American complacenéy, and American defensiveness, and the argument for extending the school year comes up against the educational establishment. One group of professionals has created a large and complicated body of literature, riven with statistical analysis, on the question of “time and learning.” Two of the premises are unassailable. First, additional time by itself does not guarantee more successful learning . More is not necessarily better, because other factors come into play, ranging from the quality of the teacher to the quality of the textbooks to the health of the student . Second, time is a commodity that comes in different sizes. The length of the school year, the length of the school week, the length of the school day, the number of minutes diverted to “classroom management” and lost to instruction, the number of minutes allocated to a particular subject, the amount of homework, the rate of pupil attendance and absenteeism—these blocks of time interrelate, and the importance of any one of them cannot be analyzed without considering its impact on the others.

Generally speaking, these theorists are not interested in the larger, garden-variety units of time such as the school year, the school week, or the school day. They just prefer to deal with the smaller units, rearranged according to concepts of their own devising: “time on task,” ‘‘engaged time,’’ and ‘‘academic learning time.’’ Nancy Karweit, of the Johns Hopkins University, does work that is representative of the group. In one article she presented a graph, based on her observation of twelve classrooms, to contrast what she termed “scheduled time,” “instructional time,” and “engaged time” in math class. Scheduled time was the number of minutes in a week that a teacher allotted for math instruction. Instructional time was the time left in scheduled time after classroom- management time and interruptions were deducted. Engaged time was the time left in instructional time after student inattention was deducted.

Karweit’s aim was to take the official class period of forty-five or so minutes and, after close observation and careful counting, lop off all the minutes that were not used well. Her eye is on the micro-management of the educational experience. The focus is on using scheduled class time more effectively, shortening the transitions between tasks, minimizing distractions to learning, increasing the proportion of the class period in which the teacher is actively engaged with students, and increasing the quality and appropriateness of instruction. The length of the school year, in contrast, is what she calls a “global time measure.” Whether to increase it is a question that might interest the generalist, but for her it is simply too big a clump of time to matter; too many other factors intervene to affect learning.

Time-and-learning theory finds a statistical relationship between the amount learned, as measured by achievement-test scores, and the time spent learning, but it is not a strong one. The reason is that so much else affects the student. Herbert Walberg, of the University of Illinois, has surveyed the literature to identify, in all, nine “educational productivity factors.” Three have to do with personal char- acteristics: ability, chronological development, and motivation. Four have to do with psychological environments: home life, the classroom social group, the general peer culture, and television viewing. Only two have to do explicitly with instruction: the quality of teaching, ranging from the curriculum to the individual teacher’s method, and, finally, the amount of time students are engaged in learning.

The Walberg list suggests that those who oppose a longer school year because they favor “quality” over “quantity” draw a misplaced contrast. Seven of Walberg’s nine factors involve neither the quality nor the quantity of education but other considerations altogether. What is significant is that with the exception of lengthening the school year or school day, both of which can be done for thousands of students at a time, these productivity factors defy easy improvement by interested human beings. For masses of people across the entire society, personal qualities, psychological environments, and the quality of teaching will be slow to change.

The educational theorists concede as much; the prevailing mood in their ranks is either outright pessimism or a cautious allowance that things might improve at the margins. While they are quick to criticize proposals for change, they hesitate to put forward concrete alternatives of their own . For all the seeming precision gained by measuring learning in relation to engaged time rather than the raw number of days in the school year, these researchers are quite vague about how much to increase engaged time per day or per week . “How long can teachers be expected to productively interact with their students? ” Karweit wonders. “How long can students be expected to be on-task?” Summarizing the current state of the literature for the Consortium on Educational Policy Studies at Indiana University, three researchers wrote, “Increased instructional time does have modest effects on student achievement; unfortunately, research is inconclusive on the most effective and practical ways to increase time.”

There is a hidden irony, in any event, in the efforts of Karweit and others to boost “quality time” in the classroom. At first, those who speak of quality rather than quantity will always claim the higher moral ground. But the casual observer of American education comes away with the impression that past a certain point, gains in learning per hour will always be elusive—slipping and sliding in every school system with changes in teachers, administrators, teaching techniques, theories of learning, curriculum additions, and who knows what else. By its very nature, teaching is an extraordinarily decentralized human activity dependent on the personality of the teacher, the personalities of the students, and the chemistry among them. Trying to get the teacher and the students to bridge the gap between Japan and the United States by stepping up learning per hour—as the time-and-learning theorists do—is a great deal more daunting than creating a longer school year in which to cover more of the curriculum. Images come to mind of forced feeding and assembly-line speed-ups.

Unfortunately, these same theorists go out of their way to criticize proposals to extend the school year. Their major insight, as noted, is that playing with big variables like the school year won’t help much if little things go wrong. For example, increasing the school year will do no good if all the additional time is lost to absenteeism. Points like these seem so self-evident as not to merit much repeating, but in the professional literature they appear all the time, slightly dressed up in academic verbiage.

In their current roles time-and-learning theorists are not much help; they stifle the political debate over education in this country. Every unit of learning time that they regard as important just happens to be a micro-measure too esoteric for convenient public discussion. Conversely, every unit of time that the public can talk about, think about, or do anything about is disparaged as a source of false hope. This is anti-democratic and elitist, and eventually self-defeating even for the social scientists. Educational improvements in a democracy need a mobilized constituency. Parents will not march to the town hall under the banner of increasing engaged time. They will not yet march under the banner of increasing the school year, either. But at least they can understand the idea without a course in statistics, and can take partin the debate—elementary, perhaps, but the first step toward change.

Nonetheless, the micro-theorists have something to contribute to the debate about how to improve education. Engaged time is a useful idea; nobody can argue with teacher-training efforts that focus on productivity within the classroom and the reduction of distractions and interruptions. For that matter, big and important debates about American education can continue within the context of a longer school year as well. Questions about curriculum, class size, teacher autonomy, school- based management, competency testing, dropout prevention, minority isolation, student services and counseling—there is much to preoccupy us. A longer school year, while hardly sufficient in itself to reclaim quality in American education, is a superstructure under which other changes can be made. A school year of, say, 220 days will serve as a big tent . A number of things may go, into the tent to make it a better place; to accommodate them all and to arrange them in proper order requires the space the tent provides.

The micro-theorists mount a highly technical assault. on the longer school year. Many others within the educational establishment attack on grounds broader and more general, although not so closely reasoned. The arguments of these writers and thinkers vary but in the end boil down to the familiar preference for quality rather than quantity . In fact their stock in trade is not quality but complexity; they view the problem of American education as so knotty, with contributing factors so numerous and solutions so uncertain, that it can never be solved, only written about. These professionals seem incapable of coming up with a short list of concrete priorities for reform, let alone of describing how to get from the present to the future along the highly political road that reform must travel. Undoubtedly a host of influences, some of them subtle matters of culture, are at work when American kids do poorly and other kids do well . But we are not. likely soon to banish the problems that are too numerous, and neither are we likely to banish those that are too subtle. Equalizing the time we commit to learning is the way; that we will begin to come back . In lamenting that it is all very complicated, the professionals do nothing to advance the argument for dramatic change; in practical, political terms, they advance the argument for little change, or no change at all.

Lester Thurow, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has lost patience with all the foot-dragging.. In 1985 he wrote, The standard American response to proposals for a longer school year is to argue that Americans should learn to more efficiently use the current 180 days before they worry about adding more days. Such a response is to get the whole problem backwards. Instead of starting with what is easy to do—work longer and harder— Americans start with what is very difficult to do—work smarter. The argument is als a form of implicit American arrogance. Americans think that they can learn in 180 days what the rest of the world takes 220 to 240 days to learn. It also forgets that the rest of the world is trying to use its 220 or 240 days more efficiently.


W HAT, THEN, IS TO BE DONE? AS THE DEBATE OVER lengthening the school year is joined, how is public apprehension to be overcome, a public consensus to be formed?

First, there is the matter of leadership. Recall that in the late 1950s, after Sputnik, Americans did not balk at being challenged to run a race with the Soviets for world scientific supremacy . In fact, this nation has always reacted well to competitions summed up in muscular imagery by our leaders: Americans run races, go for the gold, vie for championships, all with admirable zest.

But these days the message of civic, political, and intellectual leaders is different. The tone is unrelentingly dour. Americans are not dared to run a race; they are told that the race has already been run, the United States has lost, and they are to blame—because they did not “work harder.” Both the political right and the political left have generated cottage industries centered on the person of the scold, the critic, the moralist. These entrepreneurs of gloom engender a very mixed reaction, because people are ambivalent about being lectured to. When Roger Porter, a presidential aide for economic and domestic policy, labels American education “depressing and uninspiring,” dismay at our prospects dampens our appetite for meeting the challenge. The end-of-the-American-century, fall-of--a-great-power talk has gone too far.

Where education is concerned, the Gallup polls tell us that people are now open to a message of change. Complacency is no longer holding us back. But the tone of the message must be optimistic, and resonant with the American themes that lend themselves to the task of mobilizing for change—specifically, the notions that we have always risen to the challenge of competition, felt free to adapt the good ideas of others, worked like demons when the prize was self-improvement, and had a special knack for exploiting the practical fruits of learning.

Americans are up to the game of international educational competition, but we need to know what the rules are. When the rest of the world plays a twenty-minute period, American students cannot be expected to rack up as many points in fifteen. Our toughest competitors are, in fact, playing a school year of 220 days or so, with resuits that bode poorly for America’s future. It is up to this country’s leaders to get the word out, in a way that inspires rather than dispirits their audiences.

Once these leaders make the effort, they will find that many people are way ahead of them, and not only because of concern about international competition. An entirely different dynamic is also at work, one that promises to tip popular opinion further in favor of more schooling . Aspects of it were detected by the 1988 Gallup poll on education, in response to the question “Would you favor or oppose the local public schools’ offering before-school and after-school programs where needed for so-called latch-key children, that is, those whose parents do not return home until late in the day?” To those familiar with publie resistance to extending the school year and school day, the response was stunning. Seventy percent of the sampie were in favor, 23 percent opposed—a spread repeated when Gallup asked the question, in slightly different form, last year. The forces at work here are now formidable. More than 25 million women in the United States have children under the age of thirteen, and most of those women work at least part-time. Latchkey children, who spend some part of the working day at home without adult supervision, arouse particular concern. A 1987 Harris survey indicates that 12 percent of elementary, 30 percent of middle school, and 38 percent of high school students are left to care for themselves after school “almost every day.”

In the seventh-grade class I taught for a day, the majority of the students lived in housing projects . They were not averse to the idea of a longer school year. Instead, they volunteered that kids would be kept off the streets, that now they were “spoiled” by too much TV and too much Nintendo, and that there was nothing to do over the long summer vacation. The students also had suggestions about what a longer school year might include: more sports, more time to study, and more real opportunity to take courses in subjects that interested them.

The issue here extends beyond latchkey children to touch all manner of middle- class, working-class, and poor families. Many parents who cover all the bases for their children are doing so just barely, and at a cost in terms of missed wages that they cannot sustain forever. All told, an enormous potential constituency exists for a longer school day, folded into a longer school year.


T HE COMPLAINT WILL BE HEARD THAT A SCHOOL CANNOT be all things to all people—cannot be a place of education , a health-care clinic, a settlement house, and a neighborhood recreation center rolled into one. The pragmatic response is that a school must , in fact, be all these things.

In most communities the best facility for accommodating large numbers of children is the school building. The best adults to be with these children are teachers, and the best way to structure the hours involved is through a curriculum that permits ample time for physical exercise, creative activity, and play, as well as learning. Almost nothing else— neither healthy civic institutions nor trained personnel—is available to the children, either at the end of the abbreviated school day or at the end of the abbreviated school year.

Despite the size of the potential popular constituency, a big problem remains. Teachers tend to be opposed to an extension of the school day and school year. Most prefer their summer vacations. But significant increases in pay are also very important to this financially pressed group. Teachers must recognize that the school-year and school-day issues are the levers they have been looking for; better pay and big extensions of school time go hand in hand.

Which leads to the subject of how, in this complicated country, the transition to a world-class school year can be made, and how members of the public, many of them not parents, can be induced to pay the costs.

Matters already discussed are crucial. Leaders must emerge among parents, educators, civic activists, and politicians. The issue must be thrust into the public domain, the international data disseminated, the economicstakes made clear. Bills must be introduced at the state level (I am sponsoring one in Massachusetts) to increase the minimum length of the school year. As obvious as this step is, it raises a question of fairness that dogs reform in the American system.

In the 1830s and 1840s Horace Mann struggled to rescue the floundering American school system and persuade a divided public of the need to educate children more thoroughly. As secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education, Mann firmly staked out a position against maximum local control of the schools— an under- taking as controversial then as it is now. He undercut hiring prerogatives by proposing statewide standards for teachers, and infringed on curriculum-setting power by pushing for uniformity in textbooks. His influence soon extended across the country. Various state legislatures stepped up the pace of educational reform, passing laws whose effects were to increase drastically the number of children in school, the length of time they spent there, and the cost and quality of the instruction they received.

Here came a dnse of messy politics: These same legislatures declined to assume the cost of funding these good acts. Instead, the new laws took the form of state- imposed mandates on municipalities, to be paid for out of property taxes. Legislatures had the right to do this because then, as now, state constitutions placed local communities under the power of state governments.

Mandates made people upset. One hundred and fifty years later they still do. When the state dictates to the city and town, critics object either that the content of the mandate is bad or that the content is fine but the dictator should foot the bill. The mandating power, these critics say, makes accountability impossible, places a financial burden on the lower governments, and offends the unwritten but powerful tradition of home rule.

True enough, but mandates have an overriding virtue: awkward in principle, they work in practice. Systems of government must somehow sort out responsibilities. In the American system the sorting out gets done by the U.S. Constitution and the constitutions of the various states, as interpreted by the courts, and by the U.S. Congress and the state legislatures. From the start, the public schools have been left to local communities to run—but the ground rules have been written elsewhere, and they have changed as the country and world have changed.

Those who insist that states fully fund their education mandates would lead us into the political bog, and soon be stuck themselves. Legislatures and Congress might respond by declining to set higher standards, which would be disastrous. More likely, these bodies would set the standards, assume the costs—and then extend their influence even further, into day-to-day policy-making, which should be left to local people . Full funding would have the effect, ironic for the locals who demanded it, of leading inexorably to more state encroachment and over-sight. It is an axiom of political finance, and probably of human nature: If you pay for it, you will want to run it. It follows that if a healthy measure of control over schools is to remain at home, local officials must live with mandates, and without insisting on full funding.

One is able, then, to lay one’s hands on a blunt but historically effective tool of change: the mandate. One can envision the pattern of change, true to federalism and the maxim of Louis Brandeis: a leapfrog trail from one state to the next, as each works out the problems of persuasion, politics, and finance. One can describe several elements of change. A longer school year should be phased in over some period, because time will be needed to plan, and because local governments cannot tax their citizens into penury, even when mandated to do so. Stepped-up revenue- sharing should come from state legislatures, because while full funding of the mandate is neither possible nor desirable, a generous partnership is. And one must insist upon some help from the federal government. The Chief Executive of the United States must be asked to be the education President he says he wants to be, and to sponsor and sign into law a program of federal aid to school districts as they switch to a longer year. The federal government’s tax base is broad enough to help finance the expansion of the school year. Nothing is more critical to national security in the post—Cold War era than schooling our children, yet education’s share of the federal budget in fiscal year 1990 was an abysmal 1.9 percent. The issue here is priorities, not capabilities. The question, as the old saw goes, is not whether we can afford to do it but whether we can afford not to.

While a broad-based movement builds, more immediate levers of change present themselves. If civic or political leaders are determined to see a 220-day school year in their state by the year 2000, they might begin by raising private-sector and public-sector matching funds to extend the year for ten or so medium-sized districts, spread among the poor, the middle-class, and the well-to-do. And if this arrangement does not work, a handful of affluent districts can take the plunge on their own, using their taxing power and their long-standing prerogative to go beyond state minimums in setting the local school year. This would be financially feasible in the short term and politically formidable in the long term. In my own state of Massachusetts, what Lexington does today, Concord will feel impelled to do in relatively short order.

Some will hesitate, in the well-intentioned belief that the school year should not change for any district until it changes for all. But, as a matter of tactics, this is not shrewd. The issue is not whether all schools change to 220 days; the issue is whether no schools whatsoever change, depriving us of the chance to get the process started . Once the trend begins in earnest, the courts or the legislatures will come under mounting pressure to do the right thing by poorer communities . In the past two years the supreme courts of New Jersey, Kentucky, Texas, and Montana have handed down landmark decisions on inequities in the financing of rich and poor school districts . If the aim is social justice, it becomes important to set a longer school year as the standard of record, even for a handful of wealthier districts, so that poorer districts can then be brought up to par.

Find a way to begin the process, and watch it build on itself. Who will abide having his children receive forty fewer days of education every year than the kids in the next town over? For that matter, who will abide, for much longer, having her children receive less education than the kids in the country the next continent over? The world is shrinking . Change is inevitable . It is only a matter of time.


The ATLANTIC Monthly Magazine

November 1990. (Pgs. 78-106)

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