Why Do Children Attend School for 180 Days Each Year?

Insights   05 June 2019
By Ulcca Joshi Hansen, Education Reimagined


Education Reimagined partnered with 180 Studio to continue our video series exploring the “Why” of traditional education. The series digs into why we narrowly group children by age, promote memorization over deeper learning, use grade levels as indicators of “moving up,” and confine learning to four-walled classrooms. Complementing each video, our Vice President, Dr. Ulcca Joshi Hansen, provides the research and history around the “why” of America’s education traditions and invites all of us to explore the possibility of something new.


Summer vacation is an iconic theme in classic American films featuring children and teenagers. After the slog of attending school for 9-10 months, summer vacation is a time for young people to engage in the adventure, fun, and learning that happens when adults leave them to their own devices.

Have you ever wondered how it ended up this way?

Why do our children attend 180 days of school each year? Why is each academic year separated by a long summer break that researchers now worry leads to “learning loss”? There are many theories, but history doesn’t bear any of them out. In fact, other than a lack of air conditioning, history tells us there isn’t a good reason at all for this schedule. So, why don’t we change it?

How did we land on 180 days?

In the early days of American public education, schools ran like libraries—free classes were held, and children only attended when it was convenient. Responsibilities at home and on the farm came first; school came second. As industrialization and the number of factories increased, children were seen as a cheap and effective form of labor—pushing school even further down the priority list. For all of these reasons, in 1890, the average child went to school only about 86 days a year.

If it wasn’t for education reformer Horace Mann and increased pressure from teachers, parents, and church groups to restrict child labor, public education may have remained tertiary for decades to come. In 1852, Mann enacted a compulsory school attendance law in Massachusetts, and by 1918, the rest of the country had followed suit—increasing average attendance to 120 days.  Shockingly enough, it took until 1938 for Congress to pass the Fair Labor and Standards Act (FLSA) that officially fixed the minimum working age at 16 for most professions.

As American labor laws changed and child labor was outlawed, children were freed up to attend school more regularly. By 1974, average school attendance was up to 160 days, and over the years, different states have come to mandate between 170 and 185 days of school per year.

The motivations behind this 180-day target, and compulsory education more broadly, is up for debate. Horace Mann claimed, “Education…beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery…It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility toward the rich; it prevents being poor.” Although Mann seems to express accessible education for the masses as a moral imperative, the historical record shows less heroic reasonings—including a desire to assimilate immigrant populations and young people generally into the dominant US culture.

Looking beyond Mann’s unattractive motivations, more concrete reasons to question our focus on the number of days kids attend school are grounded in what we are learning about human development and the science of learning.

What does science tell us about our 180-day tradition?

Regardless of seat-time, many countries (e.g. Germany and Finland) outperform the US on academic performance and overall youth health and wellbeing. Rather than seat time, the most striking difference seems to be the structure of schooling itself.

German students attend school for 240 days each year, but academic work only occurs in the mornings. After lunch, there are sports, clubs, and activities such as art and music that American schools consider to be either extra-curricular or specials; the latter have routinely been cut over the last decade to spend more time on core academics. In Germany, older kids can choose between a more traditional academic track or a skilled trade track. That gives kids who learn better by “doing” a chance to learn through apprenticeships.

By contrast, Finland, like the US, has about 190 days of schooling each year. But in Finland, kids don’t even start school until they are seven years old.

Why? Because Finland organizes its education system around principles that the science of development and learning now bear out: young children don’t learn best by sitting in school—they learn by playing and being in the world. To wit, even when they do start attending formal school, Finnish students don’t arrive until 9am and finish by 3pm, with more recess and break-time built into those six hours than you will find in a conventional learning environment in the US.

Even if our only interest was in improving academic outcomes, it is becoming clear that a child’s overall well-being is a prerequisite in doing so. And, if the number of hours and days kids spend in school is not the driving factor in either well-being or academic performance, then it seems like a variable we ought to consider as a much lower priority to the overall transformation of education.

Learning critical skills and dispositions doesn’t happen in classrooms

This much we know: the current education system was built on a set of erroneous assumptions about how and where learning could happen best and most efficiently.

Without the science to guide us, we had to rely on “gut feelings.”

Young people were seen as empty vessels that needed to be filled with the knowledge they needed for life. Adults had this knowledge. So, the system was designed to efficiently allow adults to transfer knowledge to young people. Whether or not this has actually been happening is questionable and increasingly irrelevant because we know that transferring knowledge can longer be the goal of our education system.

By some estimates, the amount of knowledge in the world doubles every 12 months. And, with advances in technology and artificial intelligence (AI), that rate is expected to increase to doubling every 12 hours. Moreover, with AI able to capture, store, sort, and analyze information far more efficiently than human beings, knowing things is no longer human beings’ competitive advantage.

Report after report—from the World Bank, McKinsey, and governments around the world—is concluding the same thing. To thrive in a technologically-advanced future, human beings need to develop a new set of skills and dispositions. They need to know themselves and have a sense of how they want to engage in the world.

None of these things are developed sitting in classrooms listening to teachers. The growing shift in public education towards project-based and more active learning approaches shows that we know this.

Young people are most likely to develop skills like problem-solving, collaboration, empathy, and adaptability when they are engaged with complex, real-world challenges.

They are most likely to develop a sense of community, belonging, and identity when they are immersed in their communities.

And, they are most likely to develop a sense of who they are—their strengths, challenges, and aspirations—when they have a chance to experience the richness and possibilities that the world actually holds.

Why, then, are we making up projects, scenarios, and case studies for young people to engage with inside the walls of a school? Let’s allow them to spend time in the world—in real-life contexts where they can attain knowledge, develop skills, and cultivate dispositions that will act as their foundation to lifelong learning.

Focusing on days, not learning, prevents us from thinking differently

We keep saying we want to help develop lifelong learners. Yet, by focusing on the number of days students spend in school, we reinforce the idea that learning only happens in school.

If we care about learning, then let’s ask ourselves: Where and when does learning happen? Learning happens everywhere, all the time. The trick is to be conscious about the learning that is happening.

My sons play sports. They have learned how to be responsible, how to keep track of time so they get to practice on time, how to listen and take feedback from coaches, and how to communicate effectively with their teammates.

Over the holidays, my family went to a holiday market that featured dozens of businesses set up by young entrepreneurs. Each entrepreneur had attended a summer camp at the Young Americans Bank in Denver where they learned how to turn a hobby into a business proposal by analyzing their local market. They developed business plans, applied for and took out small loans, and now run their own businesses (in some cases with partners). A number of them donate some of their profits to local charities because they learned about corporate social responsibility.

In rural Colorado, hundreds of young people are involved in 4-H and raising animals to compete in shows. They learn about business, biology, budgeting, and organization.

In our current education system, none of this “counts” toward academic progress. We need to seriously invest time in figuring out new systems, structures, and policies that allow young people to demonstrate and get credit for everything they are learning, in all the places they are learning.

Society cares that people can do things, not where and how they learned them.

Imagine what would be possible if the focus of our education system was on learning, rather than on the number of days in the school year.

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