School Daze: Michigan's incredible shrinking school year

(Originally published March 12, 2009)

Imagine if the United States completely flopped in the next Olympics. Imagine if countries like Japan and South Korea dominated the medal count and it was obvious those athletes had simply out-worked, out-practiced, and out-performed ours.

The likely results… Public outcry. Fired coaches. Promises of a quick return to athletic glory would echo across the land.

We wouldn’t stand for shrinking commitment to the Olympics.

But we’re passively allowing a shrinking school year for our kids – especially in Michigan.

The Center for Michigan’s new special report — School Daze: Michigan’s Shrinking School Year” -- raises red flags about our state’s commitment to education. Our public school students are at risk of falling seriously behind their peers in others states and the rest of the world.

Click here to download the full report.

Click here to download a searchable database of scheduled school days, actual school days, cancellations, and actual instructional hours for more than 750 public school districts and charter schools across the state

A summary of our findings:

  • 98 percent of Michigan public schools held fewer than 180 days of classes last year. 180 days is the standard across much of the United States.
  • Even at 180 days, the American system lags most of the industrialized world. Korean students attend school 225 days a year; Japanese students, 220. Americans’ test scores are lower than those of students in countries with longer school years.
  • Because of snow days and other cancellations, many Michigan districts are not meeting the state’s target of 1,098 hours of instruction per year. The average was 1,066 hours last year across 600 high schools. On average, cancellations (not made up) amount to about a week of lost instruction at each high school.
  • As a cost-cutting move, some districts are trading shorter school years for smaller educator raises.
  • School districts say they don’t have funds to return to the traditional 180-day calendar, much less expand the school year as experts urge.

School calendars are set by local districts, many of which have lengthened each school day to help compensate for lost days. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Flanagan told us that phenomenon is “outrageous.”

“I think in general you’d find that districts still got raises but still went from 180 days down,” Flanagan said. “When we’re in a time-based model for most kids, you need at least 180 days. I called the (local school) superintendents out on this in September of 2007 saying it is the wrong direction. This may not be totally in their control if (local school) boards just want to get contracts done.”

Flanagan’s predecessor, Tom Watkins, said the shrinking school year is an alarming wake-up call.
“Are we going to live in the past or move boldly into the future?” Watkins said. “Reducing the time our children are in school is a move backward. This action will help bankrupt our state.”

Check how your local schools compare in the searchable spreadsheet. If you don’t like what you see, ask your legislators and school board members how we can expect Michigan students to spend fewer days in school and still compete in the complex, talent-driven, global economy.

Or accept that students in the rest of the world will have the intellectual muscle to beat your kids in the race for jobs, opportunities, and prosperity.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Craig Oldham
Tue, 09/13/2011 - 9:42am
Great article, good stats, BUT minimal discussion on where the money is to come from to pay the district employees for 5, 10, 15 or 20 days more time "on the job", depending on your district. It is my thought that the expectation is that employees should just "chip in more"! We now have 3% questionably taken from us. We all must "give back" on our CADILLAC insurance policies under new legislation. Steps & seniotiy have been done away with in most contracts (again legislation), we must continue to go to school at our own cost each summer or every other summer "to stay up to date". We now must go to college 5 years in must cases to be a school teacher, all for $35,000 or $40,000 a year to start and now w/o steps in a contract who knows what a top salary will be? Why do this? But the expectation is that we will all do this for free! We then compare ourselves to countries where education is directed and controlled by professionals, NOT politicians who happened to go a school and now know everything! We have problems that bottom line cost money! SORRY!!
Sun, 02/16/2014 - 11:24pm
Oh sorry... but let's crap on the kids. Don't get into the profession. No wonder why America is going in the gutter.
Fri, 04/13/2012 - 12:17pm
I would just like to add that In Japan, the days they spend off are generally 52 days for weekends as they only have Sundays off, and the breaks that many Americans would imagine are three-four weeks long spread out through the school year, rather than the one-two week breaks we have here in Michigan and the one long summer break. While many kids appreciate the summer break, me being one of them, it also gives us an opportunity to forget a lot of things. One of the biggest drawbacks I see of our school system, however, is the amount of homework one receives on said breaks. I have on average five-six hours of homework a day, and on the weekends about the same per day, or ten-twelve hours total. It's quite taxing with general weekend plans added in. The kids that are serious about their schooling are most definately still learning and working hard, but I think that it would be most beneficial for our breaks to be set up more like Japans. Americans generally work the longest hours on average with the least amount of vacations, for various reasons, of course, but in many countries people will be able to take three weeks to even month long breaks to spend with their families, not counting sick time. On average, those people are usually healthier than the average American. Think about it. If you work a grinding 8 hours at work with 2 hours overtime every day during tax season as an accountant for three weeks, when you get home all you're going to want to do is relax, no? However, if you were to have a shorter work day, perhaps you would go for a walk, or take time to prepare a meal instead of buying fast food. I guess what I'm saying is, the amount of time you spend in school or work isn't as important as what you do with it.