Longer School Days Not Good for Quality

I never thought I would be agreeing with Chester Finn, Jr., but his recent Gladfly post, comparing educational goals in Singapore and the United States, strikes a chord. While Singapore is pushing mightily to increase educational access for its citizens, it aims at quality and increased access in the first through tenth grades and, for about a quarter of the population, in the equivalent of senior high school. It does not aim to get everyone into university even though the tiny country counts heavily on the knowledge-base of its citizens.

Meanwhile, in the United States, a surge is gaining ground to increase how much schooling students should have -- more hours, more days, and more years. Asks Finn, is this really a cure? Or is it just "pigging out on the educational equivalent of fast food -- fattening but not nutritious"? Pushing for more and more education dilutes what we have and bypasses quality.

So what would longer hours do for us?

Part of the push for more schooling comes from envy of the academic prowess of Chinese students. I've been consulting and doing research in the schools of China and the United States for 20 years, and every time I head for China, U.S. teachers and parents ask me how we can get our students to be more like the Chinese students -- more studious, more focused, and good at math. Meanwhile, the Chinese tell me how much they long for American-style education because it teaches children to innovate and think outside the box. They, and the Chinese government, talk of how debilitating their exam-focused education is.

Over the years I have learned one fundamental truth: we both want what the other has. But paradoxically, the United States places more and more emphasis and school time on standardized testing. American schools, especially in the elementary grades, are getting rid of field trips, supplementary books beyond the textbooks, and "extras" like art, music, P.E., and sometimes social studies and science. They are replaced with test practice and drills aimed at improving performance on the narrow bits of information being tested. We're getting rid of exactly the things that the Chinese see as our strengths.

Chinese students spend many more hours than Americans on schoolwork -- inside and outside of school. But to what end? They take more subjects than Americans, with math, Chinese, and English the most emphasized. I have found they dig much more deeply into subjects. When they read a piece by an author, they delve well beyond its general meaning to analyze how the writer used words and to what effect, how and why characters interact. In the process, they are expected to memorize the text and everything associated with it.

Said one parent, among many I have interviewed, "Chinese kids memorize everything. Even the commas." They need to do this to pass in-class exams, but also to pass the high-pressure college entrance exam, the only means into university.

Many middle class Chinese parents hate the memorization and extensive hours of study. They wish their children had far less pressure, and more time to explore other activities. Several talked of helping their child finish the huge amounts of homework, and others of family savings spent on providing extra tutoring to give their child an advantage in exams. One father and mother who do not believe in filling their son's life with extra after-school and weekend classes encouraged him to participate only in the after-school chess club, because he likes it. The rest of the time, when he isn't doing his regular homework, he plays with the family cat and thinks up projects and activities he can do by himself because all of his classmates are in school late into each afternoon and on weekends. They said their son is an average student, but a happy child, unlike many who are excelling.

In recent years, one of the major family discussions of middle-income parents in China is whether to send their child to the United States or Canada for high school or college in order to escape their exam-ridden education system. Droves are now coming. The number of Chinese undergraduates in the United States has increased dramatically. Before 2007 it was about 9,000 annually. According to the Institute of International Education it jumped to 16,000 that year, and rose to nearly 160,000 in 2011, a huge increase from 2007.

Here is the paradox: Americans want what the Chinese have; the Chinese want what we have.

The Chinese crave the individuality and independence found in American schools because they see these traits leading to innovation; we want our students to have the intense focus and discipline that we believe leads to Chinese students' academic excellence. Where Chinese educators and parents say they are desperate to change the iron grip of test preparation, Americans are narrowing the curriculum to increase class time for test preparation aimed at producing Chinese-caliber exam scores.

We would do well to focus first on improving, rather than diluting, the quality of K-12 education in both countries, and realize that longer school days are not an answer.