Counting Down the School Days

Could shortening school years be a pain-free way for school districts to save money?
by | May 1, 2010 AT 9:00 AM
Chalkboard eraser on desk

Over the last century, most American school systems have converged on a standard 180-day school year. But over the last two years, many states have begun to wonder whether anyone would notice if they lopped off a few days.

The reason is money. Officials are considering-and in many cases implementing-shorter school years as a simple and relatively painless way to reduce spending in states from Georgia to California. Teacher furloughs already have reduced Hawaii's current school year by more than a dozen days.

Hawaii's cutback is more extreme than others. Still, the fact that states and school districts even are considering shorter school years reflects a notable reversal. At least since a federal commission published A Nation at Risk in 1983, America's education establishment has worried that students in the United States spend too little time in school. American students spend roughly the same number of hours in the classroom as most of their foreign counterparts, but anxiety remains that some Asian children are required to attend more. In 2009, President Barack Obama proposed longer school years.

It's easy to see why states are now moving in the opposite direction. States spend more on schools than anything else. "School systems all over this country spend 85 percent or more on personnel," says Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association. "If you're going to cut budgets, it's got to be in the area of salaries or benefits." The advantage of a shorter school year is that when teachers and other school personnel work fewer days, they get paid less. Plus, school systems save money by closing school buildings.

The savings can be substantial. In Kentucky, for example, estimates indicate that the state would save $36 million per year by shortening the school year by just two days. What's the significance of a couple of days of school anyway?

Quite a lot, it turns out. "The more time you spend learning something, the more likely you'll learn it," says Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "That just makes sense." Loveless' research shows that countries that have added instructional time saw their students' math scores go up, while those that cut instructional time saw scores go down.

A growing body of research in the U.S. echoes those findings: Researchers have compared test scores in school years shortened by snow days to normal-length years. In the exact same schools, fewer days meant lower scores.

Obviously fiscal conditions have forced states to make all sorts of budget cuts they know will come with undesirable consequences. The question is whether there's a better alternative to a shorter school year. Loveless thinks there is, though it's one that many parents would be reluctant to accept: larger class sizes.

He says evidence shows young children learn best in smaller classes, but beyond that, the research isn't nearly as conclusive as it is for instructional time. If school systems-or the states that help fund them-have a choice between shortening the school year or hiring fewer teachers per pupil, Loveless argues that students will be better off with bigger classes.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman | Former Staff Writer |