Should We Have More School Time? Yes -- For Kids

07/01/2010 04:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Recently, I gave my 11th grade students an Economist article about how American schoolchildren attend school far less than their counterparts in other countries, both in terms of hours per week and days per year. As the article reported:

[Americans] have one of the shortest school years anywhere, a mere 180 days compared with an average of 195 for OECD countries and more than 200 for East Asian countries. German children spend 20 more days in school than American ones, and South Koreans over a month more. American children 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.

I then asked my students for their responses to the article. To my surprise, more than 90 percent of them wrote that they think Americans should have more school, with most saying that a 40 hour week seemed fair.

One girl perceptively wrote that students wouldn't mind extra hours if they had always had them, noting that after just a month or two at our school -- which has a seven hour school day, more than an hour longer than the Chicago Public Schools -- nearly all the students had become used to the new schedule. Another wrote that she was "totally sick of hearing about other people and races leaving us behind and us doing nothing to make up for it."

Anyone who believes that our students, including those in high-poverty urban neighborhoods, don't want to learn should read the responses I received on that assignment.

That students need more instruction time is particularly true in Chicago, where the school day and school year are shorter than the national averages (less than 30 hours per week and just 170 days per year). Students seem to know it. When a delegation of students met CPS chief Ron Huberman earlier this year, they told him that the system should increase its school day from five hours and 45 minutes to seven hours, an increase of 20 percent.

But though Chicago teachers might be willing to teach a bit more for more money, there is a limit on how high this can go. After all, schools with extremely extended school days experience massive teacher turnover; in some high-intensity charter schools, the turnover can reach more than 50 percent of the teaching staff per year, leading to a circumstance where the faculty is constantly in flux and composed primarily of young teachers who can sustain the punishing hours.

And, as those fond of international comparisons should note, working teachers to the bone is not what other countries do. As new data released by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicates, while American students might be "underworked," American school teachers most certainly are not -- particularly for what they are being paid.

First, the data on how much American teachers teach:

American teachers spend on average 1,080 hours teaching each year. Across the O.E.C.D., the average is 794 hours on primary education, 709 hours on lower secondary education, and 653 hours on upper secondary education general programs.

Second, the data on how much American teachers earn:

In the United States, a teacher with 15 years of experience makes a salary that is 96 percent of the country's gross domestic product per capita. Across the O.E.C.D., a teacher of equivalent experience makes 117 percent of G.D.P. per capita. At the high end of the scale, in Korea, the average teacher at this level makes a full 221 percent of the country's G.D.P. per capita.

As the reporter from the New York Times concludes, "Compared to other developed countries, in the United States teachers generally spend more time teaching but apparently without an equivalent advantage in pay."

Many local critics of the teachers union -- like the Chicago Tribune -- argue that Chicago teachers earn about the same as New York teachers, despite the longer school day and higher cost of living in New York. But a good argument can be made that New York is underpaying its teachers rather than Chicago overpaying them. After all, Chicago teachers might be well compensated by national standards, but are probably being underpaid by international ones. That means New York teachers are really being underpaid.

And that presents a dilemma.

On one hand, American schoolchildren in general -- and Chicago schoolchildren in particular -- need more instructional time in terms of hours and days. As Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz argue in a recent book, U.S. economic might in the 20th Century was largely a result of superior American investments in education.

On the other hand, American teachers are already among the most overworked educators in the world. While the Economist lauds charter schools with extended learning time -- singling out the Knowledge Is Power Program schools for praise -- the anonymous writers at the London-based magazine should take a look at the rest of the OECD data, as well as KIPP teacher attrition rates, before proposing that American teachers should simply work more.

This would also, one hopes, end the casual and intellectually-lazy union bashing. The magazine simply dismisses unions as having "a vested interest in the status quo" without mentioning any legitimate concerns that teachers might have.

The amount of instructional time can only increase in a meaningful way if school districts do what they do in other countries: hire more teachers, and compensate them fairly. Would this cost more? Of course. It would require either higher taxes or a shift in our spending priorities. But those are decisions that our industrialized allies -- nearly all of which have higher tax burdens and considerably lower spending in areas like defense -- have made, and our economic future, as Katz and Goldin show, depends on our keeping pace.