In an interview last year, President Obama argued that kids in the United States are “losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer.” In his best-seller, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell praises a charter school with an extended schedule, writing that the “only problem with school, for kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.”
Those are two pretty big-name advocates for a longer school year. Also, this past weekend, a Times op-ed, with the exciting headline “This Is Your Brain on Summer,” informs us that “decades of research confirm that summer learning loss is real.”
Usually when people argue for a longer school year, they mention how other countries are outpacing us because their children spend more time in the classroom. Obama refers to the longer school years of “most other advanced countries.” In Outliers, Gladwell is more specific: “The school year in the United States is, on average, 180 days long. The South Korean school year is 220 days long. The Japanese school year is 243 days long.”
The numbers Gladwell uses are from a chart in a 20-year-old magazine article—a chart that, incidentally, includes the Soviet Union—but it’s certainly true that kids in South Korea and Japan go to school longer than kids in the United States.
Somehow, though, Finland never comes up in these discussions.
Finland is consistently at or near the top of PISA test scores, a test that is given every three years in countries around the world and measures achievement in reading, math, and science. The school year in Finland is 190 days, far short of South Korea and Japan, but slightly longer than in the United States.
But that number is misleading. Finnish students actually spend much less time at school each day and compulsory education doesn’t begin until age 7 (though most take advantage of voluntary, government-provided preschool). By age 14, students in the United States have spent almost twice as much time (2,500 hours more) in the classroom as students in Finland. And yet Finland is beating the United States, consistently, by large margins across the board.
Now, you can object that Finland and the United States are very different countries, and you would be right. Finland has five million people, while the United States has 300 million. And it’s true that the Finns have a considerably lower poverty rate (5 percent, versus 12 percent, according to one measure). That said, according to PISA results, even low-income students in Finland perform well on the test.
Upping the number of days students spend in school doesn’t necessarily mean that students will do better. For instance, students in Russia go to school longer (more than 200 days a year) and yet they lag well behind the United States, and of course even further behind Finland, according to PISA results.
Yes, pointing out that Finland does well is cherry-picking. But so is bringing up Japan and South Korea.
International comparisons aside, a study that gets cited again and again by those who want to reduce summer vacation looked at the standardized test scores of low-income and high-income kids in Baltimore and found that low-income kids had worse scores at the beginning of fall than at the end of spring. From this, the authors conclude that the dog days of summer made them dumber. They are, as the president says, forgetting what they learned.
But higher income kids didn’t forget. In fact, their scores ticked up over the summer.
Why is that? Maybe those kids have more books at home, which we know from previous research can help. Maybe it’s because their parents take them to museums more often or feed them more nutritious food or take them to Italy rather than Six Flags. No one seems to know for sure, but perhaps that’s worth figuring out before we tack on another month or two of academics.
And if we’re looking for international models, how about starting with Finland, which crushes not only the United States in every category, but also Japan.