A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Prisoners Of Time - April 1994


International comparisons of education are difficult. Cultural factors influence performance and school systems differ. Despite such problems, international comparisons are not impossible and a great deal can be learned from examining schooling abroad. In fact, unflattering comparisons of the academic performance of American students with those from other lands spurred attempts at school improvement in the United States throughout the 1980s.

From its review of other nations, the Commission draws several conclusions:

In short, education abroad is built around high expectations. Schools hold themselves and the adults and students in them to high standards; in consequence they enjoy high levels of support from parents and the community. As the Commission observed first-hand, schools overseas reflect a cultural passion for learning.


Recent comparisons of the number of annual "instructional hours" in different countries indicate that Americans rank in the top half of the nine countries examined. By the standard of time as an instructional resource, American education measures up well.

This standard, however, provides false comfort. As the Commission saw in Germany and Japan, learning is serious business abroad. "Academic time" is rarely touched. Distinctions are made between the academic day (which the Germans call the half day) and the school day (in Germany, the full day).

When asked about the school day, officials produce documents outlining a time frame similar to that in the typical American school. They feel no need to explain extracurricular activities within the school day, because these activities are not allowed to interfere with academic time. Academic time, by and large, is devoted to core academic study-native language and literature, mathematics, science, history, civics, geography, the arts, and second and third languages.

The use of "instructional" time in the United States is markedly different. The Commission analyzed time requirements for core academic subjects in 41 states and the District of Columbia. (Nine states did not provide information.) The results are startling: on average, students can receive a high school diploma-often sufficient in itself for university entrance-if they devote only 41 percent of their school time to core academic work.

It is conceivable that American students devote more time to demanding coursework than states require. That hope, however, is misplaced: 1993 data from the U.S. Department of Education indicate that the course of study most students follow is very close to what states require.


2 - Sources: United States estimate developed from The Digest of Education Statistics (NCES, 1992), State Education Indicators (Council of Chief State School Officers, 1990), and the commission's review of academic requirements in 41 states and the District of Columbia. The estimate for Japan was developed from Monbusho (1993 publication of the Japanese Ministry of Education, Science and Culture) and site visits to Japanese secondary schools, and confirmed by senior Japanese ministry officials at a meeting in Washington. The estimate for France was developed from a French publication, Organization of the French Educational System Leading to the French Baccalaureat, and confirmed by French officials. The German estimate is actually the number of hours of required coursework for one state, Berlin.

Figure 1 compares requirements for core academic instruction in the final four years of secondary school in four countries: Germany, France, Japan, and the United States. It displays minimum time requirements at the secondary level in core academic subjects, based on our observations abroad and official state and national publications. In their final four years of secondary school, according to our estimates, French, German, and Japanese students receive more than twice as much core academic instruction as American students. Although these estimates are approximations, we are convinced they reflect the magnitude of the academic time trap in which American schools are caught.

Figure 1 speaks for itself. No matter how the assumptions underlying the figure are modified, the result is always the same-students abroad are required to work on demanding subject matter at least twice as long. In practical terms, this means that most foreign students are studying language, literature, science and two or more languages, while many of our young people spend their time in study halls, pep rallies, driver education, and assemblies.

Even the most committed advocate of the status quo will concede that American students cannot learn as much as their foreign peers in half the time. By this standard, our education system still has a long way to go.

One need look no further than Figure 1 to understand why European and Asian visitors to the United States commonly understand English while their children outperform American students on tests of student achievement. Americans abroad, by contrast, assume they will deal with people who speak English. Our high school students have trouble reading, writing, and solving simple mathematics problems.

The emphasis on core academic instruction abroad does not mean that other activities are ignored. Up to 50 percent of German students, even in farming areas, remain at the school after the academic day to participate in clubs, sports, and additional classes of one kind or another. In Japan, students clean their school when the academic day ends and then enter activity periods.


The formidable learning advantage Japanese and German schools provide to their students is complemented by equally impressive out-of-school learning. Large numbers of Japanese students (two-thirds of all students in Tokyo; nationally about 15 percent of all students in grade four rising to nearly 50 percent by grade nine) attend jukus-private, tutorial services that enrich instruction, provide remedial help, and prepare students for university examinations.

A Japanese research institute official told the Commission that elementary school teachers teach to the "middle of the class." Gifted students who might get bored or students who need extra assistance are expected to turn to the juku for help.

Jukus are a big business in Japan. Spending on the estimated 35,000 jukus reaches about 800 billion yen annually (over $7 billion), costing the average family, according to Japanese officials, about $2,500 per year, per child.

In Japan, schools and the larger society generally ignore "ability" or "aptitude" as factors in school success. The Japanese are convinced that hard work can help every student meet high standards. Diligence, application, and enterprise are the keys-if a student is not "getting it," more time, usually self-directed time, is the answer.

Jukus do not exist in Germany. But if German students are similar to their peers throughout Europe, 50 percent of them spend two or more hours on daily homework, and only 7 or 8 percent watch television for five or more hours a day. In the United States, only 29 percent of students report doing as much homework and three times as many watch television daily for five or more hours.

In sum, compared to American students, German and Japanese youth are exposed in high school to much more demanding academic subjects, for many more hours. They spend more serious time learning outside the school. And they fritter away less time in front of the television.


Another distinction that can be drawn between American education and schooling abroad is in consequences for school performance. In Germany and Japan, learning matters. Performance, not seat time, is what counts. Students understand that what they learn in school will make a real difference to their chances in life. In the United States, paper credentials count. Apart from the small percentage of students interested in highly selective colleges and universities, most students understand that possession of even a mediocre high school diploma is enough to get them into some kind of college or job.

Students in German vocational schools know that what they learn in class is closely related to what they will do on the job, because their apprenticeship experience (an alternating routine of learning in class and learning on the job) demonstrates the relationship every day. German students interested in pursuing a university career also understand that they will have to pass the Abitur, a demanding examination covering secondary school preparation.

Examination pressure is even more severe in Japan. Since attendance in upper secondary schools (grades 10-12) is not compulsory in Japan, young people take examinations even to enter public high schools. Although 90 percent of Japanese young people complete high school, the particular high school attended is critical to the chances for university admission. Moreover, Japanese students also must sit for intense, pressure-filled, competitive examinations for admission to the best universities.


Teachers are held to much higher standards in both Germany and Japan. In Germany, teachers are expected to be more knowledgeable in their subjects than are teachers in the United States. Teacher preparation, consequently, takes up to six years (compared to four in the United States). In Japan, aspiring teachers are required to pass a rigorous examination prior to certification. The organization of school time in both societies encourages continued development of teachers, who are given the time they need to grow and cooperate as professionals.

Japanese teachers generally deal with more students in each classroom, but teach fewer classes; the typical class has between 35 and 40 students, compared to an average of 23 in the United States. However, Japanese teachers are typically in "front of the class" for only four hours a day. Time spent outside the classroom is not considered wasted, but an essential aspect of professional work. The same phenomenon can be seen in Germany-teachers are in front of a class for 21 to 24 hours a week, but their work week is 38 hours long. Non-classroom time is spent on preparation, grading, in-service education, and consulting with colleagues.

In both countries, the Commission sensed considerably greater encouragement of teacher professionalism than is apparent in the United States. In Germany, for example, teachers select the texts they will use to meet Länder (state) standards; in 15 of the 16 states, teachers design and administer their own tests for the Abitur; and teachers validate colleagues' testing by sharing examinations with each other and discussing test questions.


It is clear from these observations that the issue of improving student performance is not simply a matter of time. Time is clearly critical. In the context of a global market for educated people, the fact that youth abroad receive the equivalent of several additional years of schooling cannot be ignored. But other factors are equally important. Elsewhere, core academic instruction is emphasized. Academic time is protected. Expectations for out-of-school learning are high. Teachers are held to high standards and treated as professionals.

All of these are critical factors in the success of schooling abroad. And all of them are feasible, because foreign schools understand that effective learning depends on freeing schools, teachers, and students from the bonds of time.

Dimensions of the Time Challenge Table of Contents Recommendations

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