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3 Unexpected Factors Hurting the American Education System

By Matthew Lynch — August 28, 2015 5 min read
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Here are some facts you may find alarming: according to data collected by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the performance of American students as compared to their international equivalents is mediocre at best. PISA is an international study that evaluates education systems worldwide every three years. This involves testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in more than 70 participating countries/economies.

From overcrowded schools to lack of parental involvement, there are many obvious problems within the education system that immediately come to mind when thinking of how to improve education in America. But some issues fly under the radar. Here are just three of those factors that, when addressed, could make the US more competitive on a global scale:

1. The amount of time students spend in school

Let’s look at where American schools rank right now when it comes to days in school versus time off. Thirty states require schools to have a 180-day calendar, two ask for more than 181 school days and the rest ask for between 171 and 179 days on the official school calendar each year. Minnesota is the only state in the nation that has no minimum requirement for number of days students are in the classroom (though the state averages 175 school days). This means that in states with the lowest day requirements, students are out of school for more days than they are in it (as many as 194 days per year), a number that contrasts greatly with other developed nations.

Korea has the highest required number of school days, at 225, followed by Japan at 223 and China at 221. Canadian requirements are close to the U.S., at 188 days, and England is at 190 days. When all developed nations are considered, the international average for days in school is 193 - a full two weeks+ higher than most of the U.S.

But are all these days considered equal?

How long are the school days in places like Korea, China and England? It varies, but it is not uncommon for Korean high school students to spend 16 hours each school day in classrooms. That is more than twice the amount of time that American students spend at school, and perhaps a bit too extreme. Yet Korean students consistently rank at the top of developed nations when it comes to subjects like math and science, vastly outpacing U.S. students. By contrast, in England school-aged children spend 6.5 to 7 hours at school - the equivalent of American students (but, remember, they spend more days in the classroom).

President Obama is in favor of more time in the classroom.

In 2009, he stated that the amount of time students currently spend in school places us at a competitive disadvantage. “Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea. That is no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy.”

Predictably those comments have received some pushback in the years since, both from parents who believe their children are already under too much pressure at school and need every single day off they are allotted, and from teachers unions who want to know how educators will be properly accommodated for the extra time spent in classroom instruction. The idea of adding more time to student school calendars is an unpopular one - but I’m not sure that is reason enough to rule it out.

2. The lack of respect we have for the teaching profession

According to the Pew Research Center, Americans have a declining interest in education. Not surprisingly, the economy, job creation and terrorism are the public’s top three priorities, and there’s no question each would have grave consequences if not addressed. These topics should certainly be focal points of interest. However, some of these priorities are related to or even dependent on the quality of education in this country.

As reported by the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation, a recent study conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) suggests that if the U.S. could boost its average PISA scores by 25 points over the next 20 years, it could lead to a gain of $41 trillion for the U.S. economy over the lifetime of the generation born in 2010. Therein lies the solution to every major problem facing the American people -- including the economy, job creation and terrorism awareness.

Based on research provided by Dr. Steven Paine, a nationally renowned American educator, the OECD has offered a number of simple and practical lessons to the United States. According to Paine, money is not the answer to boosting our country’s international educational status, nor will it bring about a greater classroom experience. In studying the world’s highest achievers -- Finland, Singapore and Ontario, Canada -- Paine suggests our lack of respect for teachers is the nation’s number one enemy of education.

Paine stated in his report to the OECD, “In Finland, it is a tremendous honor to be a teacher, and teachers are afforded a status comparable to what doctors, lawyers and other highly regarded professionals enjoy in the U.S.” The report also suggested the teaching profession in Singapore “is competitive and highly selective, [a country] that works hard to build its own sense of professional conduct and meet high standards for skills development.” The study of Ontario revealed similar findings.

Paine continued, “OECD countries that have been most successful in making teaching an attractive profession have often done so by offering teachers real career prospects and more responsibility as professionals -- encouraging them to become leaders of educational reform. This requires teacher education that helps teachers to become innovators and researchers in education, not just deliverers of the curriculum.”

3. A lack of regard for arts education

According to First Lady Michelle Obama, an estimated 6 million children have no access to arts education, and another 6 million have a “minimal” exposure. In schools such as the New York City public schools, a significant percentage of schools have no arts teachers.

The arts may not be considered as important as math and science, but it is still very important for student engagement and learning. A school in the lowest income district in all of New York participated in a four-year arts integration program that took students from basically no arts learning to multi-faceted lesson plans with arts inclusion. The results? An 8 percent improvement in Language Arts scores, 9 percent improvement in math scores and less absenteeism.

Can you think of any other little-known factors that might have an impact on the U.S. educational system?

The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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