Although the 180-day school year is common in the United States, it is shorter than in most other advanced countries. The school year is 200 days or more in many countries, including Australia, Germany, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and the Netherlands.
This month, about 100,000 young Michiganders will graduate from high school. That’s good news. The not-so-good news is that, even though they will have a diploma, many of them will not have a 12th-grade education.
One of the most telling pieces of evidence is the large number of college students who have to take remedial courses. Here at Michigan State University last year, more than 1000 students were required to take “Mathematics 1825: Intermediate Algebra.” But credits earned in Math 1825 don’t count toward graduation. You only get college credit for taking college courses, and Math 1825 is not a college course. It’s a course in which students work on material they should have mastered in high school.
The problems are just as bad, or worse, at most other colleges and universities in Michigan, and especially at community colleges. And that doesn’t say anything about the skills of the high-school graduates who never go to college.
Don’t get me wrong—many of our students do graduate from high school with all of the skills that a high-school diploma should signify. But many don’t.
We can do better.
Students need more time
In my 31 years on the MSU faculty, I have taught many students who were exceptionally well prepared, but I have also taught many with unfortunate gaps in their preparation. In most cases, my sense is that these students simply had not been required to spend enough time on their studies in the K-12 schools. They hadn’t written enough paragraphs, and they hadn’t done enough math problems.
I believe it’s time for our students to spend more time on task. It’s time for a longer school year.
We like to think that Michigan has a school year of 180 days. But Bridge Magazine has exposed the fact that, in practice, many schools in Michigan deliver far fewer than 180 days of instruction. As a first step, I would love it if we would have a school year that is truly 180 days long.
But 180 is not a magic number. Although the 180-day school year is common in the United States, it is shorter than in most other advanced countries. The school year is 200 days or more in many countries, including Australia, Germany, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and the Netherlands. (It’s no coincidence that students in these countries routinely outperform American students.)
Students forget a lot over the long, long summer. And so our children spend weeks every fall re-learning the things that were lost over the summer. The losses are greatest for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, whose parents can’t afford to fill the summer with enriching activities.
If we in Michigan are serious about providing our children with a solid foundation for economic success, I believe we should have a school year of 200 days.
Of course, a longer school year is not some miraculous solution to our educational problems. A longer school year doesn’t help students who are chronically truant. A longer school year is no substitute for good teachers, appropriate class sizes, or modern facilities. Most of all, a longer school year is no substitute for parental involvement. But the combination of more instruction and less forgetting over the summer will help most of Michigan’s children.
Some folks may object to this proposal because it will cost money. They will say we can’t afford to lengthen the school year. I say we can’t afford not to.
Michigan was once a leader in this regard. In 1872, the school year in Michigan was 150 days, at a time when the national average was 133 days, and Louisiana had a 65-day school year. By 1920, Michigan’s school year was 172 days, at a time when the national average was 162, and South Carolina had 110.
We have the opportunity to be a leader again. In fact, we are already moving in the right direction. Michigan made a huge improvement last year, by expanding the opportunities for early-childhood education. Now is the time to build on that momentum, by increasing the length of the K-12 school year.
Charles Ballard is a professor of economics at Michigan State University