Americans spend more on schooling students than nearly all other affluent countries. Yet our students make the fewest gains in reading, mathematics, and science. Although they score about average on tests in the early grades, they come in last in high school. How can the most productive country on the planet have the least productive schools?
In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education reported what it considered the chief reason. This distinguished group of citizens pointed out the negative effects of the short U.S. school year of 180 days compared to 190 to 210 days in Europe and 240 in Japan. Because of the commission's report, A Nation at Risk, legislators increased spending on schools, and educators carried out many reforms. Achievement, however, remained stagnant during subsequent years. Recent international surveys show that U.S. students continue to make the least progress and that the U.S. still has the shortest school year.
The number of days in the school year, however, tells only part of the story. I analyzed thirty-three psychological studies that compared U.S. students' use of time with that of students in Korea, China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan—countries that top the achievement charts. Those students went to school more days per year (including partial days on Saturdays), had a longer school day, typically attended private tutoring schools, and did more homework for both their regular and their tutoring schools. Within and outside school, Chinese students averaged twice the total study time of U.S. students; Korean students put in 83 percent more study time.
After immigrating to the United States, many Asian students continue private after-school lessons and prodigious study time—a reason for their breathtaking achievements in school mathematics and science and later in university engineering, science, medicine, and other challenging fields despite severe economic and language handicaps. The comparative studies offered other time-related comparisons. During their short summer vacations, for example, many Korean students study English, computers, and martial arts. What do U.S. students do with their substantial nonstudy time? Comparisons with Chinese students suggest they spend twice as much time playing and much more time watching television. Yet a national survey of American high school students showed that three-fourths believed that tougher examinations and graduation requirements would lead students to study harder, longer, and more effectively.
Our national difficulty is following the obvious implications of consistent research findings, common sense, and what students know. Educators have yet to increase the length of the school year. Nor have they established high standards that would induce our students to study harder.