The Obama administration and Arne Duncan, head of the Department of Education, have not backed off from their advocacy of killing one of the sacred cows of American life – the mythical and magical time we call summer vacation. Taking on such a controversial issue, particularly in a country in which state legislatures and local school boards dictate school calendars, not the federal government, has always seemed like a strange battle to fight but there’s more to this argument than meets the eye.
Obama and Duncan are fighting an uphill battle to be sure. Duncan’s defensiveness on the issue was clear when he told a group of Denver middle school students “Go ahead and boo me. You're competing for jobs with kids from India and China. I think schools should be open six, seven days a week; eleven, twelve months a year.” The students didn’t actually boo him; in fact according to news reports the remark didn’t seem to faze the bored group of youngsters who were stuck sitting through the long, dull assembly. But perhaps if they had actually been listening they would have booed.
Their parents apparently would have – according to a recent Rasmussen poll more than 68% of American adults are opposed to year round schooling, and only 25% say they are in favor of the yearlong calendar, which despite such strong opposition has already been implemented in more than 3000 schools nationwide. Somewhat surprising, however, is the fact that 60-90% of teachers in year round school districts say they prefer the yearlong calendar, which is used in most of Western Europe and Japan.
Think about it. There are so many emotions tied up in most of our minds when it comes to summer vacation it’s almost impossible to be objective about the issue – the argument that kids need time to be kids is a compelling one, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. I fondly remember long summer afternoons spent wading in the creek behind our house hunting for crawdads, long lazy mornings spent reading fantasy paperbacks in the overstuffed love seat in our living room, long introspective days spent riding my bike aimlessly down the Fort Collins bike trail, and long hot July afternoons spent running through sprinklers and sliding on slip n’ slides and chasing down the ice cream man with a crushed wad of sweaty dollar bills clutched in my hand. I treasure those memories, and the thought that my own kids might miss out on those opportunities is enough to make me want to kick the whole idea to the curb just like most Americans apparently want to. But is that really what we’re talking about here? For that matter, what exactly are we talking about?
Switching to a yearlong calendar and extending the length and number of school days, as Duncan wants to do, are actually two completely separate issues – so let me take them on one at a time. First of all, switching to a year round calendar, at least as it has been implemented so far in the United States, doesn’t actually increase the number of school days that students are required to attend – instead it spreads vacations out throughout the year. The model most year-round schools in the US are following is the “balanced calendar” which divides the year into four nine-week terms with three weeks off between them and an extra-long six-week summer vacation. This is similar to the calendar that has been in use in the U.K for decades.
One of the biggest benefits of the yearlong calendar is that it dramatically reduces summer learning loss – the full month of academic progress that students lose each year after ten weeks away from the classroom. The problem is worse among lower socio-economic status students who lose, on average, a full month of achievement in reading, writing, and math. Middle class students also lose ground in writing and math, although interestingly they actually gain ground, on average, in reading achievement. The reason for this is that middle-class homes tend to be literacy-rich environments, and the opportunity to engage in some pleasure reading gives them a big boost. For most of today’s students, however, summer is far from the odyssey of literary and living exploration that I remember. For many kids summer ends up being one long video game and television binge, leaving teachers to spend the entire month of September simply undoing the damage caused by the extended break from learning
But this is a completely different issue from Duncan’s argument for adding days to the school calendar and lengthening the school day. The actual number of required school days per year is set by state legislatures, and so far (thank goodness) no state law anywhere in the US requires more than 180 days of school per year. Some states require as few as 175. This, as Duncan is fond of pointing out, is quite a bit lower than averages in most other nations (the global average is 200 days per year). But unfortunately he always stops there. The more important question if you want to talk about whether we should add more time to the school year is, how does the US compare to other nations in terms of actual hours of classroom time per year? After all, the length of school days varies widely from country to country so simply comparing the total number of days is apples to oranges.
When you look at this more telling figure, the picture becomes quite different. Students in the United States attend school for a relatively long time each day, and as a result the average American kid is in school 1,100 hours per year – significantly higher than the average hours attended by students in Western Europe, Canada, Mexico, Korea, Japan, and Singapore, who average between them only 701 hours per student per year – and that average includes hyper-vigilant Japan. But Japan actually does not win the international test-score game due to its burned out, overworked, and chronically depressed student body. That title goes to Finland, whose students are consistently at the very top in reading, writing, and math achievement. But Finnish students attend school only 600 hours per year – almost half the time that their American counterparts spend sitting in classrooms (US kids, by the way, currently rank in the mid-teens in all three of those categories).
Switching to year round school calendars is a good idea. It would spread out instructional time, reduce teacher and student burnout, give families more options for planning vacations, give districts and schools more flexibility in scheduling extra-curricular activities, reduce summer learning loss, and generally benefit education.
I’m not sold on the idea that simply forcing students to spend more hours sitting in rows of uncomfortable desks in overcrowded classrooms is going to improve achievement, however. The key to an excellent education is not the quantity of time spent sitting in the classroom. It’s the quality of that time that makes the real difference.