September 2, 2014

School days: How the U.S. compares with other countries

schoolDays_3By now, most U.S. schoolchildren are either back in the classroom or headed there soon. As they make the transition from summer camp and bug spray to math homework and science projects, their weary parents may well wonder if children in the U.S. spend less time in the classroom than kids in other countries.

The answer: Not really, though it’s hard to say for sure.

Making comparisons between the U.S. and other countries is complicated, mainly because each U.S. state sets its own standards for minimum instructional time (more on that below), while in other countries such standards typically are set at the national level. Because of variations in the length of both the school day and the school year, the best basis for comparison is total number of instructional hours per school year. And since many states have different minimums for different grade levels, we picked three representative grades — one each for elementary, middle and high school.

Among 33 mostly developed nations, annual “total intended instructional time” averaged 790 hours for primary students (ranging from 470 hours in Russia to 1,007 hours in Chile) according to data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. For the international equivalent of U.S. middle-schoolers, average annual required hours increased to 925 (ranging from 741 hours in Sweden to 1,167 hours in Mexico). The OECD did not have data for high schoolers.

Nor did the OECD report include U.S. figures, since instructional-time rules are set by individual states. But based on our analysis, the U.S. would place near the top of both lists.

We used data from the Education Commission of the States, supplemented by examination of relevant rules and statutes and inquiries to individual states, to estimate average instructional-time minimums in the U.S. The numbers we came up with are 943 hours for 1st-graders, 1,016 hours for 7th-graders and 1,025 hours for 11th-graders. (For comparison, a 180-day calendar of 6-hour days would provide 1,080 instructional hours.)

But as parents, teachers and school administrators know well, the American education system is very locally driven, and we found wide variation in time requirements. Seventeen U.S. states mandate more instructional time for their 1st-graders (and other elementary-school students) than Chile, the top country in the international report. Vermont, which has the shortest requirement for its 1st-graders (175 four-hour days, for 700 hours total), still requires more time than nine nations, including South Korea, Slovenia, Hungary and Finland. (The U.S. and international ranges are more comparable at the middle-school level.)

Both sets of numbers, though, mask considerable variation and contain many caveats. Countries may define “instructional time” differently and set their own rules on when, and for how many years, students can attend primary and secondary school. And the OECD data don’t include time spent with tutors, in “cram schools” or in other supplemental classes, which are very common in some countries.

Nor are all U.S. school hours created equal. Texas, for instance, would seem to require the most school time: 7 hours a day for 180 days, or 1,260 hours in all. But the Texas Education Agency informs us that those seven hours include lunch, recess and other “intermissions”: “It is up to each school district to determine how much of the school day is dedicated to instruction,” the agency said in response to our query. “It is their responsibility to allot sufficient time for the required curriculum elements under the state adopted curriculum rules.”

Topics: Education

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.

15 Comments

  1. Bob Rose2 years ago

    Drew,

    The problem with American education is not time in class, but the quality of teaching itself.

    According to a new book by Marilyn Jager Adams, most kids finishing American first-grade still can’t name and WRITE all of the alphabet letters.

    Once this is fixed, our schools will be fine.

    1. Tom2 years ago

      Bob,

      We purchased a Leap Frog for our 18-month grandchild (who lives in Texas), and by the 21st month he was able to write all his letters, his name, and correctly state each and every letter of the alphabet. He, also, knows how to write the numbers 1-20, and he properly responds when we ask him to identify particular and random letters and numbers.

      Perhaps school districts should consider purchasing a Leap Frog for all children under 3 years of age …?

      Tom

      1. MJ2 years ago

        A Leap Frog? Your child excelled because you or other adults worked with them, encouraged them, and helped them to enjoy learning. No Leap Frog necessary. As a speech-language pathologist with 26 years pediatric experience, I advise parents not to rely on electronic devices but rather to limit time spent with a device and increase time spent with family members, peers, and the larger community. Research bears this out. Limit that device, and anything with a screen, and get out and live.
        By the way, kudos for the achievements, and keep learning positive!

      2. Berns1 year ago

        We also purchased a Leapfrog for my daughter when she was 3 years old. We also bought Leapfrog for my daughter when she was 3. While she was so entertained with it, she preferred our “discovery” time. While I do agree that it speeds up letter and sound recognition for kids, I do not believe in it being a primary way for kids to learn. When we were teaching her to recognize the letters, we actually went over how the alphabets started – this was when she was 3! We even make some silly description of each letters especially for confusing ones like b and d: b has a belly, and d has a derriere. She loved those moments because she discovered words that she wouldn’t usually hear from her teachers, other adults or kids. I am not a teacher nor have any credentials in teaching, but I strongly believe that by learning with them encourages better communication ability, creativity and critical thinking. Putting a device in front of them impedes those because everything was “read” to them. At 7, she had a wide dictionary as compared to her peers and at 10 won the essay contest in our district. Throw away those devices. We do our kids disservice by hiding behind them.

  2. Nan2 years ago

    I doubt the figures for Mexico which seem so high. I live there in the winter and have seen throngs of middle schoolers leaving school at midday. I was told that they only have half day school.

    1. teacherj1 year ago

      I have taught in Jalisco, Mexico for years. Middle schoolers definitely have a full day of school – and I don’t doubt those figures at all, we are in school FOREVER!! :/

      sep.gob.mx/es/sep1/Calendario_20…

  3. J.H. Snider2 years ago

    One more issue: a large fraction of U.S. high schools start at absurdly early hours with children forced to be at the bus stop in the dark as early as 5:50am. As the American Academy of Pediatrics and Start School Later point out, this reduces the efficiency of the American school schedule as many children are very sleepy during their opening period. In other words, alertness could also be a factor in the analysis of hours devoted to school. If one period/day is much less effective because kids are arriving at school in the dark, this could significantly discount effective American hours. European countries are less likely to have this type of early start problem because they have more urban areas with better public transportation. The school start times problem tends to occur in advanced Western countries that A) don’t rely on children walking to school, B) rely on dedicated public school buses for student transportation (e.g., American suburbs with poor public transportation), and C) have congested roads during rush hour (not a problem in rural areas).

    1. Tom2 years ago

      Daylight Savings Time alleviates these early time issues.

      Tom

      1. Bern1 year ago

        I am coming into this conversation a year late, but this issues is still very much alive.

        Tom, I think you missed the point that J.H. Snider was making. Children cannot optimally function int he morning due to lack of sleep because they had to be outside waiting for the school bus. This is true especially for kids who have heavy extra-curricular activities then have to go home and tackle their homework.

  4. J.H. Snider2 years ago

    There is a distinction between official school days and hours and real school days and hours. The discrepancy is often in the 5%/year range. For example, in my district there are:

    Snow days (five full days are allowed without additional school days and the State often waves the requirement for more days if it’s a bad snow year; partial snow days are not counted against this total)
    Half days for student tests, teacher grading, bad weather, etc. (1 per quarter for teacher grading = 4/year; 8 days/year for high school testing)
    School construction days (affects several percent of the school buildings every year)
    Emergency school dismissals (varies by year; hard to predict; was significant one year when a serial killer was doing random shootings nearby)

    Perhaps the biggest problem is substitute teachers, an endemic problem in my school district and many other public school districts. If there is a substitute teacher, there is likely to be minimal learning at best. The average teacher is out for at least five days a year. Whereas the other days/hours off are hard to predict, this one isn’t.

    Overall, I think you have to discount U.S. school day counts/hours by at least 10%. Not clear what the comparable situation would be in other countries.

    Note that the numbers above are merely approximations. Some, like the number of substitute days, are critical but possibly impossible to get. For example, my school district refuses to publicly release such information.

    1. Tom2 years ago

      As an 8 1/2 year member of our local high school board, we require all snow days to be made up sometime during the school year. We require 185 days of instruction for all high school students, yearly.

      There are zero exceptions.

      Tom

  5. china august2 years ago

    On what basis do you describe parents as *weary* because their children have not been in school all summer (although that may not be true as many children go to camp, attend summer school etc)

    Why is it assumed that parents are *weary* of their children?

    In this day and age no one has to have a child who does not want to (even low income people who have problems with planning have options to unwanted births.)

    Perhaps children would perform better in life and school if the media in all its forms did not seek to make them a burden with such foolish use of language.

  6. Terry Alexander2 years ago

    In British Columbia, Canada the number of intructional hours minimums are:

    853 hours of instruction for students in kindergarten;
    (b)
    878 hours of instruction for students in grades 1 to 7;
    (c)
    952 hours of instruction for students in grades 8 to 12.

    The number of instructional days is about 186 with 6 teacher instructional days.

    When I was teaching in Ontario ending in 1996 the total number of teacher work days was 200 with about 5 to 8 of those being teacher training dayis.

  7. Roger2 years ago

    Where did France fall in your figuring? When I lived there school hours far exceeded US hours, they had Sat AM classes for example

    1. S2 years ago

      France has a half day on Wednesdays which is why they are in school on Saturdays