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The School Calendar

Time for a Change

The school calendar governs a great deal in our society, including how most families organize their lives. Yet the prevailing pattern—an approximately nine-month school year, followed by three months of summer vacation – is roughly 150 years old, having come into being after the Civil War. When the calendar was put in place, farmers made up 58% of the U.S. labor force (1860 census), and having several months off in the summer served the needs of the agrarian society we then were; children were available to help their families with the harvest cycle.
The calendar was also a compromise between urban and rural practices. Rural schools were often casual, without compulsory attendance, sometimes offering instruction for as few as six months of the year. Some urban schools, on the other hand, held classes 49 weeks of the year (Shaun P. Johnson and Terry E. Spradlin of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, Indiana University, 2007). In the decades after the Civil War, American society was in flux. With the rise of industrialization, pollution suddenly rendered some of those urban schools hellish in the summer months. Furthermore, activists began to push for more codified universal education, a push made more pressing by the large post-war influx of immigrants, by the need for more educated workers in the many new factories, and by the new child labor laws. For these various reasons, the calendar as we know it made a great deal of sense to both rural and urban interests (T. D. Rakoff, School Time, American Educational Research Foundation, 1999).
Now, in the 21st Century, does it make sense to preserve this 9-3 educational model?  A growing number of educators say no. For one thing, the original rationales for the calendar no longer apply. We are far from being an agrarian society; in the year 2000, only 1.9% of the U.S. labor force worked in agriculture (2000 census).  In addition, urban pollution is significantly lower than it used to be, and an increasing number of urban schools are air-conditioned. An even more compelling argument for change is the problem of summer learning loss, a specter that haunts every school in the country.
Do students really forget a lot over the summer? Educational researcher H. Cooper and assorted colleagues, in a 1996 synthesis of 39 different studies on the subject, concluded that the average summer learning loss in math and reading for American students amounts to one month’s worth of material (“The Effects of Summer Vacation on Achievement Test Scores,” Review of Educational Research). The Rand Corporation, in a 2011 report, supports this finding and adds the concern that summer learning loss disproportionately affects low-income students, who lose two months’ worth of reading skills. A recent Johns Hopkins University study of students in Baltimore even went so far as to posit that two-thirds of the achievement gap between low and high-income freshmen could be explained by summer learning loss during the elementary school years (New York Times, July 27, 2011). As Jeff Smink, a vice-president of the National Summer Learning Association has put it, “Summers off are one of the most important, yet least acknowledged, causes of underachievement in our schools” (New York Times, July 27, 2011).
Advocates of calendar reform usually fall into two camps: those favoring extended school-year calendars, and those supporting year-round education. The extended school year proponents favor adding more school days (180 is the current norm), to be achieved by shortening the summer vacation. They argue that American children spend less time in school relative to students in other industrialized countries, and that more school days in the year will diminish summer learning loss. In addition, they argue that an extended calendar will be of particular benefit to low-income students, those whose parents cannot afford to give them summer enrichment experiences. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a member of this camp. Last December, when five states announced they would add at least 300 hours to the current academic calendar, he declared, “Adding meaningful in-school hours is a critical investment that better prepares children to be successful. . . .”
Those reformers who support year-round education do not necessarily want more school days, but rather a uniform distribution of school days throughout the year; they favor replacing the long summer vacation with shorter intercessions. The National Association of Year-Round Education (NAYRE) makes the case that their model provides for continuous instruction, thereby minimizing learning loss.  Furthermore, their model eliminates the problem of expensive facilities lying fallow for several months of the year.
Two variant approaches to year-round education have support. In the single-track model, all students attend school at the same time, which means this model does not reduce over-crowding or promote increased use of facilities. The common time-on-to-time-off ratios, people argue, for are 45-15, 60-20, or 90-30. The other model, a multi-tract approach, groups,s students and faculty into tracks (frequently four) and assigns each track a schedule. This model is popular where over-crowding is an issue and where facilities are scarce. For some districts, it is less costly than erecting new buildings.
According to NAYRE, in 2005-6, roughly 2,850 public schools in the U.S. had year-round calendars, with a total enrollment of 2,116, 364 students. In Illinois in that school year, 62 public, charter, and private schools had year-round schooling.
Extended school-year calendars have not been popular with most teachers and administrators, who are not eager to add more days to already demanding jobs, nor with affluent parents, who often feel the increase in school days constrains their vacation schedules. Year-round education also has plenty of opponents, including the tourist industry and most teachers’ unions. California, which until recently had more year-round schools than any other state, made the decision to phase out most of its year-round schools by 2012, and for a variety of reasons. Predictably, teachers and administrators felt stressed, and families complained about the difficulties of taking vacations. Schools also could not produce evidence that students were learning more and forgetting less. Further, districts reported logistic problems scheduling maintenance and renovation, because they no longer had empty buildings in the summer months. Finally—and few predicted this—the multi-track approach resulted in some districts in a kind of de facto segregation, caused by the way in which schools chose students for the different tracks.  Sometimes they chose students by neighborhood, sometimes by the programs they were pursuing. Educators R. E. and D. E. Mitchell, in a 2005 article in Teachers College Record, concluded that in year-round districts in California, there were large biases in the distribution of educational resources (107 (4), 529-562).  In fact, in 2004 the ACLU and other organizations won a major lawsuit (Williams v. California) over these inequities.
So that’s the answer? More publically funded summer enrichment programs, especially for low-income students? Maybe so. In any case, the whole calendar conundrum cries out for more research and experimentation, and it may well be that one size does not fit all. Individual districts and communities may need to come up with solutions that are right for them. What many educators do agree on, however, is that the traditional school calendar is not the best model for learning.  Many also see it as yet one more agent of inequality in a society where the playing field is anything but level.

Published: October 12, 2013
Issue: November 2013 Issue