My juniors and seniors have been given the task of writing a persuasive essay in which they tackle an educational issue. From among the choices we brainstormed on the board, I chose extending the school calendar as the focus of my piece. Please keep in mind that this is a first draft; we’ll be workshopping them in class tomorrow, so I may well post a revision then. As always, I welcome any comments or suggestions you have to offer.
Every so often, the idea of a school year that runs around the calendar is brought up for consideration at school board meetings and educator conferences. As communities look for ways to solve what they see as some of their more pressing educational troubles – most particularly the lack of sufficient student achievement – more time in the classroom is invariably considered as an option. Despite what may seem like a number of logical reasons why schools should institute a longer educational calendar, the twelve-month school year is a bad idea.
The most convincing argument against the year-round school year is the fact that an overwhelming number of school systems have barely enough funding to run their current calendars. School budgets are universally underfunded; school districts scramble for the funding required to run their payrolls, maintain their buildings, and pay for materials, and they very often fall well short of what they need. Teachers everywhere will testify that they buy their own supplies – pens, erasers, and other necessary classroom materials, as well as supplies like notebooks and lab materials for their students who can’t afford them. Rare is the school district that can say that they have sufficient chairs, books, or copy paper to meet the students’ needs. The question becomes; if we can barely afford to keep the schools open for the traditional ten-month calendar, how will we find the funds sufficient to add more time to the school year?
Proponents of the year-round school calendar will say that the traditional ten-month scheme is based on an antiquated agrarian model. Young people in earlier eras were released from their school responsibilities so that their labor could be utilized on family farms during the summertime when the workload there was greatest. Since this economic model no longer exists, proponents argue, a ten month school year is no longer necessary. There is no arguing with that claim; it is absolutely true that most of the country’s school children do not live on farms, and those who do are protected under child labor legislation from having to work on them.
Tradition, however, is a very powerful thing. The summer break is often a time when families arrange vacations and when young people are free to participate in activities that they don’t have time for during the school year; namely summer camps, sports or theatre programs, or summer jobs. If we do away with the summer vacations in favor of a year-round school calendar, many of those programs – and the vacations that families enjoy together – will suffer. This time is important to young people’s development and should be valued along with time spent in classrooms; to say that a student only learns in school is to discount the many rich and varied opportunities for learning that summer programs can provide.
Teachers are required to attend a prescribed number of professional development hours in order to maintain their certification – and ethical teachers are invested in their own education in order to be the best teachers they can be. A significant number of professional development opportunities are offered during the summertime; focused and academically challenging fellowships, workshops, and conferences give teachers valuable academic experience to bring back to their classrooms, as well as significant hours to put toward their certification renewals. Being able to devote concentrated effort in academically rigorous pursuits means that a teacher can complete a significant workshop or seminar that really improves his or her work in the classroom; many teachers will say that summer lecture series and classes that require extended work on the part of the teacher are far more valuable than the “teacher workshop days” set aside for professional development during the school year. A year-round school year would significantly cut into teacher development opportunities, as the short holidays and rotating vacation schedules make attending such extended workshops far more difficult than an open summer term allows.
A number of other countries, most notably Japan and South Korea, operate extended school years. In fact, according to the Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence, by the time Japanese teens have completed 12th grade, they would have spent the equivalent of at least three more years in school than their U.S. counterparts. Additionally, Japanese students typically score significantly higher on standardized tests than students in the U.S. This seems to be a very strong argument for extending the school year.
While it seems logical to assume that the increased time in the classroom is responsible for the improved performance of students who attend year-round schools, the link between class time and academic achievement may not be as clear as it may seem. One would be wise to look closely at the variations in curriculum and teacher qualifications – as well as parental involvement and cultural and societal expectations – as more accurate influences on student success than the length of the academic calendar. Improvements in student achievement could be better served by strengthening the curriculum, fostering parents’ involvement in their student’s life, and holding students to higher standards of quality than simply increasing the time a student spends in a classroom.
The studies that have been done on the effect of year-round schooling on student achievement have been spotty at best (Education Week), though many refute the idea that a year-round calendar is the solution to poor academic performance. Paul von Hippel, a sociologist with Ohio State University, presented a study to the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in which he concluded that students who attended a year-round school did not exceed their traditional calendar peers in performance in math and reading. His findings concluded that, because the year-round calendar is most often simply a reorganization of the traditional 180 day model, students weren’t actually spending more time in the classroom, only that the way vacations were organized had changed.
Several other practical concerns should be raised when considering lengthening the school year. The extended calendar would require that more funding be devoted to busing and school lunch programs. Maintenance costs would increase as the school buildings would require year-round janitorial staff, and energy costs in lighting, computers, and possibly cooling would also go up; many school buildings will require upgrades that include cooling systems that are unnecessary in the ten-month scheme. As many year-round calendars are staggered or “multi-tracked,” meaning that different groups of students take periodic vacations on a rotating schedule, some families might find the year-round calendar prevents them from having the entire family on break at the same time. As the mother of children who, by virtue of the difference in their ages, attend different schools every three years, I would likely find that my older daughter has a different break schedule than my younger, thereby preventing us from taking vacations as a family. As a teacher who may be contractually required to work during the “intercession breaks” in the twelve-month school year, I may find that my opportunities to spend time with my family are further impeded.
There are certainly a number of benefits to a year-round school schedule; to say otherwise would be disingenuous. The benefits of that system, however, do not outweigh the drawbacks, particularly when one considers the difficulty schools already face in trying to command adequate funding for the calendar they currently use. In fact, the school board in Muscogee County, Ohio is considering reverting back to the traditional school calendar after running a year-round model for the last ten years in an effort to compensate for drastic cuts in the school budget. While many parents are upset with the possibility of having to rearrange their schedules to allow for a long summer vacation, others are pleased that all their children will be on the same school calendar.
There are a great many concerns about the quality of American public education that need to be seriously and carefully addressed. Until more evidence is presented that the benefits of a year-round school calendar are significant enough to balance out the expense and disruption that switching to that schedule would cause, however, the focus of the efforts of parents, teachers, and administrators should be on improving the system we currently have; on quality rather than quantity. In this case, more isn’t necessarily better.