American Education from a European Vantage

The latest edition of The Economist presents a grim view of the American public education system. Our British cousins concede that American workers put in longer hours have less vacation time than their European counterparts. (The French have seven vacation weeks, and the Germans have eight.) So they question why hard-working adults tolerate such low standards for their school-aged children.

American children are required to spend only 180 days per year in school. European students attend for 195 days, and East Asian countries require their schools to be open for a minimum of 200 days. “Over 12 years, a 15 day deficit means American children lose out on 180 days of school, equivalent to an entire year. . . . (They) also have one of the shortest school days, six and a half hours, adding up to 32 hours a week. By contrast, the school week is 37 hours in Luxembourg, 44 in Belgium, 53 in Denmark, and 60 in Sweden. On top of that, American children do only about an hour’s-worth of homework a day, a figure that stuns the Japanese and Chinese.”
Moreover, the lengthy summer vacation eradicates a great deal of learning. “The average child reportedly forgets about a month’s worth of instruction in many subjects and almost three times that in mathematics.” Most teachers will admit that they spend the first six weeks of school reviewing and re-teaching what their students lost over the summer. American students consistently perform poorly on international educational tests, especially when compared with those in other industrialized nations.

The current state of educational affairs leaves our children with a distinct disadvantage in the global job market. They are burdened with an archaic academic calendar intended for an agrarian society. Teachers’ unions have a strangle-hold on districts, so administrators can do little or nothing to improve the situation. Education is a function of the state rather than the federal government, so although Barack Obama can urge school administrators to “rethink the school day,” he cannot mandate any substantial change.

But change MUST come if we are to protect our children’s and our nation’s future. Parents must demand more from their educational systems. The first step can be as simple as having students reinforce daily lessons with meaningful homework assignments. Laziness cannot and should not be a defining characteristic of American students.

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