A Case for Year Round Schooling

A Case for Year Round Schooling

I am an advocate for lengthening the school year. One model that I’m particularly interested in is the Year Round School Calendar (YRS). My intern, Helen White, prepared this fantastic crash course intro to YRS and I wanted to share it with all of you. Let me know what you think! The Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, in Fairfield, is now using a YRS. Could this calendar be a possibility for Maine to help our students excel? 

A Case for Year Round Schooling

By Helen White

What’s wrong with the current system?

Every so often, a study is released showing how American public school students match up against their counterparts in countries around the world. In the most recent reports, American students lag behind their peers in East Asia and Europe by almost every measure. The lack of American students performing at the highest levels is particularly concerning. Unlike in the localized economies of the past, American students will be competing with their European and Asian peers for jobs in the future. The U.S.’s future economic success is dependent on our students abilities to outperform and out-innovate their foreign peers.

There are many factors which help explain why our students are falling behind, but one is unmistakable. The U.S. is the only developed nation that gives its students 13 weeks off for a summer vacation. Most other nations give their students seven weeks off, at most. Not all of these countries require their students spend more time in school than the requisite 180 days in the United States. Finland has a 170 day school year and Japan has 243 days in each year, yet students in both these countries outperformed their American peers on international standardized tests.

While it’s certainly unsettling that our students are falling behind in an increasingly globalized world, what’s most concerning is how our students compare to one another. One of the biggest issues in modern education is the so-called “achievement gap”, which refers to the difference in scholastic achievement between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Students from wealthier homes systematically do better than students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds even if they go to the same school and have the same teachers.

How, then, can this gap be explained if these students go to the same school and have the same teachers? Surely wealthy students do not categorically have more academic potential or aptitude. Most experts agree that this gap results from the time students spend outside of school. While wealthier students attend enriching summer programs or receive music/dance lessons or tutoring during time off, students from disadvantaged backgrounds typically do not receive such academic enrichment outside of school. It is for this reason the achievement gap is at its narrowest at the end of the year and widest at the beginning.

Why do we have the long summer vacation?

Summer vacation is a direct product of life in the 19th century in the United States. Most families relied on agriculture, subsistence or otherwise, for their livelihood. Children were needed as farmhands in the summer. This economic imperative combined with the  lack of air conditioning or modern hygiene (which led to outbreaks of disease in the summer) made an extended break in the summer a logical way to structure the school year. Even as the U.S. moved away from a primarily agrarian society in the 20th century, most mothers did not work, so children were either home with a parent or sent away to another structured environment, like a summer camp, during the long vacation.

This just isn’t the case anymore. According to the Urban Institute, only 30% of children in homes where a primary caretaker is employed are cared for by a parent in the summer. The same study also reports that 41% of families pay for child care in the summer, spending 8% of their summertime earnings on average.

What, then, are children supposed to do when their parent(s) work but cannot afford to spend so much money on summertime child care, let alone pricey enrichment programs?

Now that only 3% of American families depend on agriculture for their livelihood (and an even smaller number rely exclusively on children for farm work in the summer), the economic interest in a long summer vacation is mostly gone. However, any attempt to adopt a state-wide year round calendar should allow school districts where children are still needed to work farms in the summer to opt out. For example, districts in northern Maine which depend on students to help with potato and broccoli crops in the summer should be allowed to retain their current calendars if they choose. Opt-outs, however, should be limited to communities which cannot replace agricultural labor from students with outside labor from migrant workers, college students, etc.

Would a year round calendar really help?

Studies have shown that, on average, students lose a quarter of a grade level in math over the summer. Having a shorter break has been shown to reduce this learning loss. This means that less time at the start of the school year needs to be spent on review. In some schools, a month or more is spent reviewing material that students have already learned. Students in year round schools tend to have higher test scores than students in schools with traditional calendars.

The results are undeniable that low-income students suffer more from summer learning loss. Moreover, studies show time and again that the achievement gap is narrowed when students spend more time in school or have shorter breaks. This is because at no point are students left without the support and learning environment provided by their schools. Therefore, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are not left behind as their peers continue to engage in enriching activities.

Has Maine ever tried to adopt a year round calendar?

In 1997, Maine’s legislature required that the state Education Commissioner work with the Maine Education association and the Maine School Management Association to develop plans to support school districts that chose to move to a year round calendar. However, it did not allocate funds for such a transition nor did it mandate any kind of change. Given that no funds were given and that such a transition is difficult to do in isolation, no schools in Maine have changed to a year round school year. In 2009, the legislature authorized school districts to modify their calendar (including start and end times to the school day) so long as the amount of instruction was equivalent to 180 days.

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This post was written by
Matthea “Mattie” Daughtry, a Brunswick native, is the State Representative for the Maine House District 66

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