By Robert Farley September 30, 2010

President Barack Obama says kids in U.S. need longer school years

It's not the most popular plank in the Obama platform among too-young-to-vote crowd.

Nonetheless, in an interview on the Today Show on Sept. 27, 2010, that focused on education, President Barack Obama stuck to his long-held position, saying, "I think we should have longer school years."

The following day, Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert took aim at Obama's plan, saying, "This has got to be Obama's worst legislative initiative since the 'You Forgot to Give Us Homework Act' of 2009."

Whether summer vacation ought to be shortened is a matter of opinion. But what Obama said to back up his position is a checkable fact.

"We now have our kids go to school about a month less than most other advanced countries," Obama said. "And that makes a difference."

In the United States, kids go to school 180 days a year.

We looked at statistics from 2008 provided by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), a research group sponsored by most of the world's advanced industrialize nations. Among the 31 OECD countries that reported statistics, the average for primary grades of public school was 187 days. The average for countries in the European Union, which includes several countries which are not part of the OECD, was 184 days per year.

So it's certainly accurate to say that kids in the United States go to school fewer days than most other advanced countries. But "about a month" less? Taking out weekends, we figured a generous figure for "about a month" was at least 15 days. According to the OECD, there were eight countries with 195 or more days of school a year. Again, that's out of 31, so it's not "most."

Obama had it right when he raised this issue last year and cited a similar, but different statistic.

"We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day," Obama said. "That calendar may have once made sense, but today, it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea. That is no way to prepare them for a 21st-century economy."

With regard to South Korea, Obama was on the mark. American children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea (220 days).

The issue of longer school years has been debated intensely in academic circles for years. Some studies have made a case for longer school days, rather than more days of school, while others have shown longer schools years have been of particular benefit to poorly performing students.

But our focus here is on Obama's claim about the length of the school year in the United States compared with other advanced countries around the world. We think Obama has a solid argument about American kids going to school fewer days than many other kids, but it's a stretch to say they go about a month less than students in most other advanced countries. Students in those countries on average go about a week and a half longer. Students in only about a quarter of those countries go to school close to a month longer than American kids. So we rate his comment Half True.

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Our Sources

Today Show website, Transcript of interview with President Barack Obama, Sept. 27, 2010

OECD website, Education at a Glance 2009: OECD Indicators

Seattle Times, "Obama presses for longer school year," by Steven Thomas, March 11, 2009

EDU in Review, "Obama Proposes Longer School Days, Extended School Year," March 12, 2009

Yahoo News, "Obama calls for longer school year," by Liz Goodwin, Sept. 27, 2010

University of Southern Maine, "Extended School Year Fast Facts," by Rebekah Bickford and David L. Silvernail, March 2009

E-mail interview with Etienne Albiser, OECD Directorate for Education, Indicators and Analysis Division, Sept. 29, 2010

Interview with Kathy Christie, Chief of Staff, Education Commission of the States, Sept. 29, 2010

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President Barack Obama says kids in U.S. need longer school years

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