Statistic of the Month: Required Classroom Time and Learning Outcomes

By: Jennifer Craw

United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has made clear his view that “our school day is too short, our week is too short, our year is too short.”  Duncan contends that in the U.S. students spend 25 percent less time in the classroom than their international competitors, and that increasing seat time will lead to improved student outcomes.  Starting this school year, five U.S. states will add at least 300 hours of learning time to their calendar in some schools as part of a pilot program funded with a mix of federal, state and district money.  Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee will take part in the initiative, which is intended to help boost student achievement and make U.S. schools more globally competitive.  But is more instructional time actually correlated to high student achievement?

PrimaryClassroomTime2

Source: OECD Education at a Glance 2013, Indicator D1 (data from 2010-2011) and Education Commission of the States’ (ECS) Number of Instructional Days/Hours in the School Year (August 2011)

In the chart above, minimum compulsory instruction time in primary school is plotted by country or state, with the five states slated to participate in the pilot program represented in purple and top performing countries from PISA 2009 in blue.  The numbers for the states do not include the additional 300 hours of learning time of this new initiative.  Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York already require nearly 300 hours per year more instructional time than Korea and Finland require, even without the additional 300 hours of this pilot program.  And Tennessee, which requires 1,170 instructional hours, is expecting primary students to be in the classroom for 200 hours a year more than students from top performing countries like Canada, the Netherlands and Australia.  And these states are not anomalies in the U.S.  On average, most states require about 900 hours of classroom time for primary students, with a few states, such as Kansas, Tennessee and Texas, requiring over 1,100 hours per year for primary students.  In fact, the lowest required classroom time for primary students in the U.S. is in New Jersey, where students are required to spend 720 hours in class per year.  Interestingly, New Jersey is also among the best performing states on NAEP, coming in second place for reading and third place for mathematics in 4th grade.

Source: OECD Education at a Glance 2013, Indicator D1 (data from 2010-2011) andEducation Commission of the States’ (ECS) Number of Instructional Days/Hours in the School Year (August 2011)

Source: OECD Education at a Glance 2013, Indicator D1 (data from 2010-2011) and<br />Education Commission of the States’ (ECS) Number of Instructional Days/Hours in the School Year (August 2011)

This second chart plots required instructional hours for lower secondary students (OECD does not provide information about required instructional time for upper secondary students), and again numbers for the five states represented do not include the additional 300 hours of learning time which will be added during the pilot program this year. Connecticut already requires roughly the same number of instructional hours for lower secondary students as do Hong Kong and Finland, and all five states require more hours than Japan, the Netherlands and Canada.  In general, most U.S. states require between 900 and 1,100 hours of classroom time for lower secondary students, roughly equivalent to some top performing countries and by no means 25 percent lower, as Secretary Duncan claims.

Of course, we all know that, in many countries, students spend many hours a day studying outside of the regularly scheduled school day, both in supplementary private schools and tutoring institutions and at home.  But that is not true in Finland, one of the highest performers.  Nor is it clear that requiring a longer school day in the United States will compensate for the time Japanese and Korean students spend in their private after-school programs drilling and practicing.  Those after-school programs reflect an intense desire to achieve in education in those countries that is not often matched by American students.  More time in school won’t change that.

Our reading of the OECD data is that spending more time in school is much less important than how the available time is spent, how motivated students are to achieve, how strong the curriculum is and how good the teachers are.