Time Enough

Apparently President Obama remarked on education yesterday.

For decades, Washington has been trapped in the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline.

Obviously Washington hasn’t been involved enough in education, so he proposes more interference. The specific policy proposals are not horrible, except for the increased Federal interference in a local matter, though others could probably cite studies contrary to the studies he mentions. Unfortunately for the President, I happen to have numbers to hand about one proposal in particular: the length of the school day and year.

[L]et’s also foster innovation in when our children are learning. We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed for when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day. That calendar may have once made sense, but today it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children — listen to this — our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea — every year. That’s no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy. That’s why I’m calling for us not only to expand effective after-school programs, but to rethink the school day to incorporate more time -– whether during the summer or through expanded-day programs for children who need it. (Applause.)

Now, I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas. (Laughter.) Not with Malia and Sasha — (laughter) — not in my family, and probably not in yours. But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom. If they can do that in South Korea, we can do it right here in the United States of America.

Education at a Glance 2008: OECD Indicators has more comparative data than you might ever want to wade through, which makes it helpful for validating assertions like the above. Let’s look at Indicator D1: How much time do students spend in the classroom? Oh, wait, data is not available for the United States. So, Mr. President, how do you make the claim that South Korean students sit at their desks longer than American students?

I expect the U.S. Department of Education provided some numbers. I’ve found the statistics for private schools, but nothing yet for public schools; the Digest of Education Statistics 2007 is not exactly well-organized. If we take the average of the private school data, we’re sitting about 200 hours longer each year than the Koreans. Interestingly enough, Korea is on the low end of the OECD’s comparisons of classroom time.

What we can look at in in the OECD data is Indicator D4: How much time do teachers spend teaching?, which contains this helpful chart.

D4: How much time do teachers spend teaching?

Whoa! Leader of the Pack!

So what, exactly, is it that we’re short on?


  1. And how do you measure that, much less increase it by government policy?

    We’re also ahead in the student:teacher ratio: The Koreans have an additional 9 students in each class. We are behind Korea in teacher salaries per GDP per capita, but well ahead of everybody else in expenditures per student per GDP per capita. (See OECD charts D2.1, D3.1, and B1.6, respectively.)

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