Making the Hours Count: Retiring Half-Day and Full-Day Labels

The wisdom of the 180 day-school year and six-hour school day in first through twelfth grade has largely gone unquestioned for well over a century, even as family structure, labor, sanitation, healthcare, consumer technology, brain science, and pedagogical research have all changed drastically.

The most recently available data show that the average school day nationally is 6.6 hours for elementary school students, with state averages ranging from 6.3 (Hawaii and Rhode Island) to 7.2 (Texas). The average number of days in a school year is 180, with the lowest state average 171 (Colorado) and the highest 184 (Florida). The national average for total hours in a public school year is 1,195. Two-thirds of states are within 50 hours of that average, suggesting a remarkable level of consistency across the country for the first through 12th grades.Why such consistency? What research do we have that suggests this is the correct amount of time per day, or the correct number of days per year for these grade levels?

Education historians Joel Weiss and Robert Brown persuasively demonstrate that the basic time structure of a school day has barely changed since at least the 1850s, “the only difference being that the current structure has little of the flexibility of its ancestor.” That flexibility stemmed partially from the fact that it was atypical for the same students to come to class at the same time every day. Indeed, the great crusade of the latter half of the 19th century in schools was to get to a universal, consistent level of attendance, which happened to be the chief accountability metric of the time. Similar to current accountability metrics, school funding from the state or province was tied to high and consistent attendance.

Summer breaks are similarly disconnected from any research on what leads to improved student progress. Instead, the two-month summer break was solidifi ed by the turn of the century, motivated by legitimate health concerns related to hot summers in urban environments before modern sewage and air conditioning. It was also codified based on misinformed ideas about brain development in children, such as the idea that children’s brains could get too full or fatigued. Lastly, the prestigious secondary schools, which few children attended, already had longer summer breaks for their mainly wealthy and urban pupils. Secondary schools were seen as more prestigious, and thus there was a drive to align primary school teachers’ labor with that of secondary schools.

Time structures are difficult to adjust once they become the norm. The last major update to our Western calendar occurred just under 500 years ago when the Gregorian calendar was instated, itself a minor change from the Julian calendar created 1500 years prior to that. But Weiss and Brown argue that time structures actually served as the “foundation on which the rest of the curriculum was based,” and therefore, that ignoring time structure in discussions about curriculum is as fl awed as if we were to ignore, say, what type of math is appropriate to teach an eight-year old. The use of curriculum in pre-K and kindergarten has only recently become common practice, so it may feel jarring to apply Weiss and Brown’s ideas to early education. But early educators are making decisions all the time that depend entirely on the hours they have available to provide literacy and math activities, engage children in conversations about new content areas, and help children explore the physical and social world.

This is the backdrop for the debate in early education over half-day versus full-day enrollment. The reason a fi rst-grader is in school for six hours a day is because that is how we have always done it. Certainly complaining about how unfair path-dependence is will not get us very far, but it is worth noting that the “grammar of schooling,” a phrase advanced by researchers David Tyack and William Tobin to refer to the tired and outdated ways we think about how school ought to be, has barely changed over the last century. Indeed, without attempting to change that grammar, it is unlikely that any fundamental changes related to time will occur. This grammar is so ingrained that it even affects the questions researchers ask.


Alexander Holt was a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. He studied the economics of higher education as well as the effect of the nonprofit sector on the U.S. economy.