French Food for Thought

Recently, I came across an article in the New York Times about a change to the French education system that entails adding in a half day of instruction on Wednesdays—which is currently a full day off with no school—and shortening the other school days by 45 minutes each. Aside from the politics that surround the proposed reform to the school week, what interested me is that tinkering with school time generated an automatic linkage to student achievement. For example, one of those not keen on the move asserts that, “We have to put an end to this magical thinking that just stretching the school week over four and a half days will improve students’ performance.”

France, like the United States, is deeply concerned with the outcomes of its education system. Like their U.S. counterparts, French schoolchildren rank in the middle tier of countries that take the international assessment in reading, math, and science known as PISA or the Programme for International Student Assessment. And also like in the U.S., French students already attend school more than their counterparts in many European countries. (In fact, U.S. students attend more annual school hours than those in France. Though the Times article cites the figure of 950 annual hours across all grades, our research suggests a higher figure of almost 1,200 total school hours, though this figure includes time for activities that are not devoted to instruction, like lunch and transitions between classes.)

To my mind, these two nations are proof positive of the relatively weak correlation at a national level between instructional time and performance on international assessments. As regular readers of this blog know, I will be the first to argue how powerful the impact of time can be for individual students and for schools, but comparing instructional on a national level is just difficult because there are so many confounding factors. Cultural expectations placed on students, student demographics, teacher training, curriculum, social support systems, and how students spend their time out of school, are just a few of the reasons why examining just instructional time among nations probably tells us little about the strength of the individual education system: countries with more time are not necessarily higher performing and students in countries with less time often perform at high levels.

Does this mean that instructional time at the national level is irrelevant? Absolutely not. As I wrote a few months ago, there is also fairly strong evidence that once you increase instructional time within a specific country, the impact on achievement can be marked. That is, all things being equal—and, presumably, changing school schedules as a definitive school reform would keep other things like cultural expectations and the overall quality of the teaching staff the same—increasing time can have a real effect. It will be most interesting to see the experience of France over the coming years as this change in the school schedule begins to take hold.