We’ll look at the recent trend to extend the school year that is sweeping school districts across the country. Does more time in the classroom mean better educated students?
The long and lazy days of summer may become significantly shorter for some students across the country, if proponents of longer school years get their way. More schools are examining how to add days to the school year, either by lengthening the current school day or shortening summer vacation. Those in favor of more school time say the change is necessary to avoid the academic slide many school children face during the long summer months. Opponents argue that reducing summer vacation strips children of the needed respite from the academic grind and the opportunity for more in-depth learning opportunities. While both sides may have a legitimate point to make, the debate may be won by those that have the most educational and political clout.
Education Secretary Leads the Charge
One of the biggest proponents for more school time is Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Duncan told the Washington Times it should be no surprise that American students are falling behind their counterparts across that globe that are going to school in countries not bound by a 180-day school year. Duncan noted in the New York Times that the original 180-day school year was based on the agrarian economy, where children were expected to help in the fields during the summer months. That model is no longer accurate for today’s educational environment or the future workforce.
“If we’re serious about closing achievement gaps – we can’t keep doing business as usual,” Duncan was reported as saying in the Washington Times. “Right now, children in India, children in China and other places, they’re going to school 30, 35 days more than our students. If you’re on a sports team and you’re practicing three days a week and the other team is practicing five days a week, who is going to win more?”
Duncan said the additional time in the classroom could be used a number of ways – from enrichment activities to tutoring for students that need additional help. The key to a successful extension of an academic year is to ensure the focus is on better preparing students to meet the needs of a 21st century workforce. While democrats and republicans on the Hill mostly agree on the idea of more time in school, the idea is slow to catch on in districts nationwide.
Adding Incentive for States
Although many have been slow to embrace the idea of longer school years, there may be added incentive for states to take another look at the idea. Last fall, President Obama opened the door for states to request waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act, by providing their own detailed reform plans. Education specialists have encouraged states to make extended school years a part of those reform plans, in an effort to raise test scores and improve learning time. Waivers must be approved by the Education Department and Secretary Duncan.
Despite the incentive of a waiver, many states were still reluctant to add a longer school year to the proposal. The problem, in part, could be the overwhelming opposition some school districts have faced from parents, teachers and students when a longer school year was considered. There is also the issue of funding – which is still a challenge for many cash-strapped states trying to make ends meet. However, there is no doubt that offering incentives from the federal level will force schools and states to continue weighing the option.
What does the Data Say?
While research on longer school years is still scant at this point, there is data to support the idea that long summer breaks lead to learning loss, dubbed the “summer slide” by some educators. The Houston Chronicle reports that the National Summer Learning Association cites decades of research that shows test scores among students are higher at the beginning of the summer than they are at the end. The only students that did not experience the slide were the top achieving students – usually those in the gifted or accelerated programs that tend to learn in any situation.
Students that fare the worst tend to be those in low-income families, where learning opportunities during the summer months are scarce, if they exist at all. In fact, research reported at CNN suggests that the widening achievement gap between high and low-income students over the course of a school career can be attributed to summer slide. The report cites Balsz Elementary School in Phoenix as an example. When the school extended its school year to 200 days, test scores have risen, failure rates have fallen, and the achievement gap has narrowed significantly.
In addition, the Houston Chronicle reports that a three-year pilot project will be launched this year in five states. Colorado, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts and Tennessee will add a minimum of 300 classroom hours to academic calendars in 40 schools. The change will impact around 20,000 students and give educators additional data to study to determine whether more school time actually equals better academic performance. If the data is positive, the evidence may be more incentive for states to consider extending the school year for the sake of a better education.
At this point, the number of schools and school districts that are ready and willing to extend the school day are still few and far between. However, as more data is collected on the academic performance of students who spend more time in the classroom, perhaps the perception of those long and lazy days of summer will begin to transform into more productive days at school.