On “It’s Time to Rethink the Hours America Spends Educating”


Alfie Kohn asked on Twitter, are our students really spending less time in school and with instruction than other countries?

His tweet was timely as it came soon after my reading It’s Time to Rethink the Hours America Spends Educating originally published in 2005, which argues that are students can’t compete globally because we don’t spend enough time in school compared to other countries. (HT: Tami Brass)

“Our time-bound mentality has fooled us all into believing that schools can educate all the people all the time in a school year of 180 days of 6 hours each. The consequence of our self-deception has been to ask the impossible of our students: We expect them to learn as much as their counterparts abroad in only half the time” (Cross and Goldberg).

To be honest, it isn’t about whether we spend less time or not than our peers globally. This misses the point.

Amid the murky notion of global comparison and high standards, the article gets at what I think is the real point:

“Unyielding and relentless, the time available in a uniform 6-hour day and 180-day year is the unacknowledged design flaw in American education… Both learners and teachers need more time — not to do more of the same, but to use all time in new, different, and better ways. The key to liberating learning lies in unlocking time” (Cross and Goldberg).

The real issue is that it is a matter of quality not necessarily quantity. The issue is how we use and structure that time. The issue is letting time define learning. The issue is how we place everyone into the same uniformed structure. The issue is standardization via time. The issue is not seeing there are alternatives to the way things have always been done. The issue is that it is time to rethink the hours America spends learning NOT educating.


  1. Our current model of education is at least 300-400 years old. The only place technology has had almost no impact is in education. Everywhere else the world has changed. Sending kids to school for longer periods of time is not going to change the result. The current economic downturn will help lead the change. Charter schooling has failed largely because it too relies on the old model. Teaching children irrelevant information from which they are guaranteed lifetime unemployment is absurd. Twenty years ago I heard Richard Strong say that Citibank hired high school graduates from country X because American high school graduates couldn’t do probability and statistics and that because it wasn’t taught. We’re still teaching decimal mathematics at a time when the entire internet runs on binary and hexadecimal. We should teach the base 10 but we need to broaden the scope of all that we teach. We teach reading and writing for a non-digital age. I’ve long been a fan of Seymour Papert and much of what he said twenty years ago is still relevant. Sadly the Common Core addresses almost none of these issues either. We need a real revolution in American education and it won’t come from adding more whiteboards and ipads to a sinking ship.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Don. I was right there with you when reading that piece. Doing the same thing longer is not going to improve the quality of education.

      I like how your brought Common Core into the discussion. How do we address this? The Mathematics standards seem to be low-hanging fruit at best.

  2. This post is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately–both as a principal and as a dad. I do think that I could increase the learning of my students if they were in school longer with my staff. A longer school day and school year would give us more opportunity to reach the high expectations set by our district and state (in terms of curriculum). There is no doubt in my mind that our achievement scores (on state and local assessments) would increase as our contact time increased. Higher scores certainly would be proof that my staff and I are making a positive academic difference for our students.

    As I dad though, this gives me great pause. My two kids (ages 9 and 5) do very well academically and I don’t worry about their future success in school. They both like school and I think they wouldn’t mind a longer school day and year. They have good friends and like their teachers. But, do they NEED more time at school? I don’t think they do. My assumption is that they are successful in school because of what my wife and I have done for them outside of school–conversations, projects at home, meaningful family trips, story time, instruction and reinforcement about respect, responsibility, productivity, etc. (Hats off to their teachers though. They’ve been fantastic and have made school fun & interesting.) If they would be required to spend more time in school, it only takes time away from us at home.

    I do think kids need more education time, but I’d love to see that come from home first. How can we reach out to parents so they know that school success starts at home? How can we equip parents to be positive partners in education? Yes, fixing these parenting and societal issues (especially disparity in income and education) is a gargantuan task compared to tweaking the school schedule. I don’t have solutions as I type my little rant here, but do want to raise this issue.

    Kids need more education time, but who should be the first providers of this time?

    • Great point – where should the “more” learning occur? It is something my wife and I have been discussing so much. When are kids allowed to be kids? When is their learning self-directed and informal? When are kids learning with their families?

      Thank you for adding this critical piece to the discussion!

  3. Ryan–I keep ruminating on this post and topic because it is something that we are considering in my district. Do we need a longer school day? I came back to your post because you make great points, and in reading it again your last line really stands out to me this time. Our school day and yearly calendar can accurately measure the amount of teaching time that is offered to kids, but it doesn’t necessarily measure the amount of time that learning happens. A kid may be in school for 7 hours, but that doesn’t equate the amount of time they are learning. Some kids are engaged all day long and are learning for the whole day. Other kids don’t have the ability or interest (might be due to the type of teaching happening in their classroom) for continuous learning during the school day. Of course learning also happens outside of the school walls. Some kids are fortunate to have parents that foster additional learning at home. Some kids do have that opportunity. Learning time and school time are not the same, and this is not a new phenomenon.

    Keep the great thoughts and questions coming. Love your blog.



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