The school year in most American schools is 180 days long. In South Korea, the school year is 220 days long. In Japan, it's 243 days long. By the time they hit college, the Asian kids have had 22 to 35 percent more schooling than American kids.
If we're going to get any more snow this winter, school superintendents are really hoping it happens this week, while the kids are on vacation.
It's been a tough winter for schools. They've had morning-delay days and early-release days. They've canceled school because nobody could find the sidewalks. They've canceled school while snow was cleared off the roofs.
Most school systems in my home state, Massachusetts, have used up their allotted snow days. Some have already gone over and are scheduling make-up sessions on teacher training days, threatening incursions on spring vacation and maybe even Saturdays. The horror.
They'll add days at the end of the school year, of course, but superintendents here promise school will go no later than the last day of June. Summer vacation, they assure us, is sacrosanct. Summer vacation is what kids look forward to all year; it's family time; it's when teenagers can make some money and, well, hang out. Summer vacation is a magical season.
It's also a big reason why America is falling behind in the global economic competition.
That's one of several compelling arguments made in "Outliers," Malcolm Gladwell's study of the components of success. His most basic conclusion is an old-fashion one: Success comes from hard work and lots of practice.
A proclivity toward hard work and practice, in turn, comes in part from the culture in which we're born. So, Gladwell asks, what makes Asian students so good, for instance, in math? The Asian work ethic, he contends, which began in the rice paddy.
Unlike Western farming, which historically has been a matter of planting in the spring, harvesting in the fall and taking it easy in between, rice farming is a year-round affair. It's complicated, involving careful attention to the composition of the clay, height of the water, the drainage of the irrigation system and the mix of rice breeds.
Gladwell sums up the lessons of the rice paddy in a Chinese proverb: "No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich."
European and American farmers learned a different lesson. They learned that there are seasons of work and seasons of rest. They learned that fields need to lie fallow periodically in order to remain fertile.
These lessons became embedded in Western culture –– and in the school year.
We often trace our school calendar to our agricultural heritage, but that doesn't really fit. Children were needed on farms in planting and harvesting times, not in the summer.
Gladwell and educational historians trace the calendar instead to the late 19th century, when reformers were building the modern education system. They believed that young minds were like farm fields, which shouldn't be worked too hard, which should be allowed to lie fallow between lessons.
Horace Mann, who practically invented public education in Massachusetts, warned that "over-stimulating the mind" was dangerous to children's health.
So the early educators advised dismissing students in mid-afternoon and doing away with Saturday classes. And they invented the summer vacation students hold dear.
But it turns out that letting children's minds lie fallow all summer isn't that healthy, after all. That's especially true for low-income students who can't afford summer camp or private lessons, and whose parents don't give them books or take them on educational trips.
Gladwell cites a study by Karl Alexander, a sociologist from Johns Hopkins, who tracked the progress of 650 Baltimore students through elementary school. The students took standardized tests in math and reading at the beginning and end of each year. Year after year, the scores showed the "achievement gap" that has drawn concern from lawmakers for a long time. With each year, the gap between the scores of the low-income and the upper-income students grew further apart.
Alexander took his analysis further, finding that between September and June, students in all income groups learned at about the same rate. But comparing June and September scores, he saw that while upper- and middle-income students gained knowledge over the summer, the low-income students barely held steady, or even lost ground.
Alexander's analysis showed that virtually the entire achievement gap visible after fifth grade could be attributed to ground lost during summer vacation.
"Schools work," Gladwell writes. "The only problem with school, for the kids who aren't achieving, is that there isn't enough of it."
This shouldn't come as a revelation. On some level, Americans know that hard work is the key to success, and the best way to get good at something is to devote more time to it.
But we don't teach the joy of hard work or that persistence brings rewards. And we take offense when Amy Chua, author of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," suggests that the higher expectations of Asian parents lead to more successful children.
American parents and educators continue to accept a fundamental fallacy: That every child requires the exact same number of hours in the classroom in order to learn what he or she needs to succeed. If it weren't for that assumption, we wouldn't lock our schools all summer. We'd have extra classes for kids who are struggling, and students who don't speak English as a first language would start the school year a month early, for intensive English classes to give them a head start.
I know some systems have summer programs, but they are usually the first thing cut when the budget crunch arrives. I know all about union contracts, the lack of air conditioning, the need to protect sports schedules, family vacations and the summer camp industry.
But none of those things matter when our children are faced with competition from workers around the globe who have worked harder and learned more.
The school year in most American schools is 180 days long. In South Korea, the school year is 220 days long. In Japan, it's 243 days long.
The math is easy: By the time they hit college, the Asian kids have had 22 to 35 percent more schooling than American kids. And, thanks to the cultural legacy of the rice paddies, those are the kids you'll find in the college library on Saturday night.
Cultural legacies don't change overnight, and our kids' attitudes toward school –– hating school is expected, liking it is uncool –– go deep into the grain. But of all the education reforms being constantly debated, the most effective might be getting rid of summer vacation.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News in Massachusetts, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at email@example.com.