Obama Calls for a Longer School Year

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

American schoolkids attend school for fewer days than children in other educationally advanced countries, a situation President Obama said Monday needs to change. "I think we should have a longer school year," Obama said in response to a question from the Today show's Matt Lauer during a White House interview that kicked off the network's weeklong "Education Nation" focus on American schools. Noting that many of our economic competitors keep their kids in school for an additional month a year, Obama said he believes "that month makes a difference." He added that research shows many students "are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year" over summer break, and that the loss "is especially severe for poor kids. A longer school year makes sense."

While the idea of a longer school year may not be very popular with many American students, teachers who prize their nine-month work year, or the industries that profit from the long summer break, it's a notion that has been building steam in the education-research community for years. A Johns Hopkins research review found that by the end of eighth grade, disadvantaged kids were nearly three grade levels behind their more advantaged peers. The authors argued that this lag accounted for most of the achievement gap long noted between income groups. Some of the most effective inner-city charter schools, like the KIPP academies, credit much of their success to the fact that their students have a longer schoolday as well as a longer school year.

Obama said that one of the big barriers to extending the school year is money, because it costs more in terms of salaries and overhead, but added that he thought it would be "money well spent." However, he did not say where that money should or could come from.

While some school districts have already taken the initiative to lengthen their school year or beef up their summer-school offerings, others are cutting back their schoolday and their summer programs because of recession-related budget declines. Some districts have even shortened their school week to four days to save money on transportation.

Documentaries like 2 Million Minutes have also made the case that our long summer vacations are one of the main reasons American students are falling behind other countries in math and science mastery. U.S. students, who once led the world, currently rank 21st in the world in science and 25th in math. During the interview, the president also mentioned that the U.S. Department of Education is launching a program to train an additional 10,000 new math and science teachers to "boost performance in that area." Obama also called on parents to take a more active role in overseeing their children's study habits and said he knows firsthand what a struggle it is to keep kids focused on their studies. "No matter how good the teacher, if the kid's coming home from school and the parent isn't checking to see if they are doing their homework or watching TV, that's going to be a problem," he said. "And that, by the way, is true here in this White House. Malia and Sasha are great kids, and great students. But if you gave them a choice, they'd be happy to sit in front of the TV all night long, every night. At some point you have to say, 'Your job, kid, right now, is to learn.' " He said the message he gives his kids is that they are "not doing anything else until you do your homework."

Later in the interview, Lauer allowed an audience member to ask Obama if he thought his daughters, who attend elite private schools, could get the same quality of education in D.C. public schools. "I will be blunt. No," Obama replied. "Right now, the D.C. public-school system is struggling. They've made some important strides, and there are some terrific individual schools in the D.C. system ... but those options are not available to all children" because many take only the best students or restrict entry to those who win an admissions lottery." While Obama said presidents' families can probably get special consideration for the school of their choice, those options aren't available to most people, and everyone deserves the "same quality education."