Disparities in Education: Children’s Schooling Varies by Up to Two Years Based on Location

Americans students may experience varying amounts of schooling each year based on their location, a recent study reveals. Moreover, factors such as student absences, suspensions, and disruptions in the classroom can significantly reduce instructional time in certain districts.

Small discrepancies in the duration of the school day or year, stemming from state or local regulations, can compound into substantial disparities in educational opportunities. Analysis indicates that over their K–12 education, students in areas with lengthier school requirements accumulate more than two additional years of schooling compared to those in regions with shorter mandates.

“It’s puzzling why some students have access to a full 180-day school year while nearby districts offer two weeks less instruction,” remarked Matthew Kraft, an economics professor at Brown University and co-author of the study. “Shouldn’t equity be a priority in our educational system?”

The findings, outlined in the American Education Research Journal, primarily pertain to data predating the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, the issues highlighted resonate with the current challenge of chronic absenteeism, as a quarter of students nationwide missed at least 10% of the 2023–24 school year. Meanwhile, an increasing number of districts are adopting a four-day school week due to budget constraints and community preferences.

Diversity in instructional time across different regions is largely shaped by state regulations. While 37 states stipulate a minimum number of school days per academic year, the figures range from 160 days in Colorado to 186 days in Kansas. Similarly, states imposing hourly requirements span from Arizona with 720 instructional hours to Texas with 1,260.

 

It’s hard for me to understand why some students should have access to a 180-day school year, and others in a district down the road get two weeks less instruction.

Matt Kraft, Brown University

On average, American K–12 schools operate for 179 days annually, with nearly seven hours per day, but regional differences are substantial.

Data from the National Teacher and Principal Survey shows that schools at the 90th percentile nationwide offer 1.17 more hours of instruction daily compared to those at the 10th percentile. This slight difference accumulates to a 196-hour teaching gap throughout the year, equivalent to around five and a half weeks of school.

While certain school districts exceed their states’ minimum instructional requirements, schools in states like Texas, Nebraska, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama offer 133 more hours of schooling per year, on average, than those in states like Hawaii, Nevada, Maine, Oregon, and Rhode Island. Consequently, students in the former group receive 1.4 extra years of education from kindergarten through twelfth grade.

Despite such disparities, some students receive less instructional time than their districts mandate. A close examination of Providence Public School District in Rhode Island reveals that elementary and secondary students miss a significant portion of their intended instructional hours due to various interruptions and absences.

Novicoff, formerly a middle school teacher and now a doctoral candidate at Stanford, suggests that administrators minimize in-class disruptions to maximize students’ learning potential during the school day.

“Simple strategies like using chat messages instead of hallway disruptions can enhance students’ learning experience,” she proposed.

Impact on Academic Achievement

While some educators strive to optimize instructional time, others have embraced shorter school weeks in recent years.

Between 2019 and 2023, the number of districts operating on a four-day week has increased from approximately 662 to nearly 900, with rural districts showing higher adoption rates due to logistical reasons.

However, research indicates that schools in Oregon transitioning to a four-day week experienced significant declines in achievement over time, suggesting that reduced instructional time negatively impacts student learning. Schools attempting to compensate for the decreased hours by elongating the remaining days still faced challenges.

Kraft & Novicoff

Recent studies confirm that schools implementing four-day weeks witnessed notable decreases in test scores, particularly in settings with reduced instructional time or less rural demographics.

We have good evidence that summer school can positively impact student achievement, particularly in math.

Emily Morton, CALDER

Emily Morton, a researcher at the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, highlighted the benefits of increased instructional time, suggesting that states should first optimize existing school hours before mandating additional days.

She emphasized the positive impact of summer school on student achievement, particularly in mathematical subjects.

Despite these recommendations, resistance to longer school hours exists within some educational communities. Following a legislative change in New Mexico to raise the minimum instructional hours, several school districts experienced legal disputes over the implementation of a 180-day school year.

Kraft suggests that states consider flexible approaches to allow schools and districts to voluntarily adopt longer school years or experiment with innovative instructional methods.

He emphasized the importance of supporting schools during any transition to increased instructional time, considering the potential unintended consequences.

The primary challenge for education leaders is addressing the widespread disengagement and absenteeism prevalent in schools. Strategies involving community outreach and alternative learning experiences may be necessary to re-establish a connection between students and schools, preventing the loss of an entire generation of students.

Jennifer Davis, co-founder of the National Center for Time & Learning, acknowledged chronic absenteeism as a significant obstacle needing urgent attention to prevent long-term academic repercussions.

“Without addressing this issue, the impact on the COVID generation could be irreversible,” Davis warned.

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