Why American Kids Fall Behind

Or maybe we should say, “Why American kids who are poor fall behind.” There are many reasons, including the morally reprehensible way schools are funded, which inevitably leads to segregation by class and race and socioeconomic status. (Which adds up to the same thing, really.)

Yesterday I was reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, so I was thinking about how short the American school year is. It makes no sense that Americans cling to long summer breaks for children. There used to be a reason for a longer summer vacation. In an agricultural economy, those children are needed to help on the farm. However, I think we can all agree that that time is long gone for most Americans.

In most other countries, children have a longer day at school, and they attend school for more days each year:

The accumulating data on comparative education, itself a relatively new preoccupation of policy specialists, point up two trends. First, compared with their peers in Asian and European countries, American students stand out for how little they work. Second, compared with Asians and Europeans, American students stand out for how poorly they do.
BOTTOM DOGS
As to the first: consider a list, garnered from a variety of sources, of the varying number of days in a standard school year. This list was hard to put together–which tells us something about the neglect of this subject in U.S. educational circles.

Japan 243
New Zealand 190
West Germany 266-240
Nigeria 190
South Korea 220
British Columbia 185
Israel 216
France 185
Luxembourg 216
Ontario 185
Soviet Union 211
Ireland 184
Netherlands 200
New Brunswick 182
Scotland 200
Quebec 180
Thailand 200
Spain 180
Hong Kong 195
Sweden 180
England/Wales 192
United States 180
Hungary 192
French Belgium 175
Switzerland 191
Flemish Belgium 160
Finland 190

In the United States, this difference does not handicap children of affluent parents, as these children continue throughout the summer with their tutoring and piano lessons and family trips and online learning and all that. But what about kids whose learning is confined to a school setting?

What happens is that they lose some of the gains they made in the previous school year. When they return to school in the fall, teachers must waste time in review. Some don’t, and then kids fall behind. The behinder they get, the behinder they get. Eventually, they get tired or overwhelmed by failure, and then they drop out. The drop-out rates for Hispanic and Black teen-agers is disproportionately high, which makes sense if you consider the disproportionate number of Hispanic and Black children living in poverty:

Children represent a disproportionate share of the poor in the United States; they are 25 percent of the total population, but 35 percent of the poor population. In 2007, 13.3 million children, or 17.4 percent, were poor. The poverty rate for children also varies substantially by race and Hispanic origin, as shown in the table below[4].

Children Under 18 Living in Poverty, 2007

Category
All children under 18
White only, non-Hispanic
Black
Hispanic
Asian

Here’s a school where students spend more time in school. From ASCD.

2/22/12 UPDATE: Reportage from the NEA on longer school days.

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