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Is It Time to Move Away From the Traditional School Calendar?

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In just a few weeks, most schools around the country will be closing for the summer. As this happens every year, educators worry about the summer slide and how much learning will be lost while kids are out of school, particularly for students from low-income families.

But for students who attend year-round schools, summer means a few weeks off rather than three months. We recently talked to David Hornak about the issue. He's the superintendent of Holt Public Schools in Holt, Mich., and the executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education (NAYRE).

Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation:

Recently, more schools have been embracing what's known as a balanced schedule where, for example, students will attend class for nine weeks and then have a three-week break. Why do you see this as better than the traditional school calendar?

For one, learning is a continuous process, and to that end, our traditional school calendar dates back hundreds of years. If you think about all of the changes that have occurred over the last 200 years in our society, one of the things that we've held steadfast to is the school calendar. The balanced calendar is gaining more attention primarily because of the potential impact is has on student achievement and the retention of knowledge. The way we have it right now we basically shut the learning off to many of our children in early June or even late May and then assume it's just going to turn back on somewhere around Labor Day.

How does that affect kids?

During that 12-to-13-week period where kids are out of school, they are, in fact, losing that knowledge that they've already learned to the degree that, on average, kids on the traditional calendar are required to be re-taught or instructed on the curriculum they were taught the year previously between four and eight weeks annually. If you compound those four to eight weeks of required re-teaching in 1st grade through 8th grade, it's quite possible a student entering high school will be a year to a year and a half behind their counterparts. We are preparing our children in America to compete in a global society, and many of our counterparts across the world are instructing their kids on a balanced school calendar or a modified, balanced school calendar. I think all of us would agree in America we would love our children to be on some type of an even level rather than starting a year to a year and a half behind their counterparts as they enter high school.

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How do you respond to the argument that taking away the long summer break will prevent kids from traveling or doing other enrichment activities outside of school?

NAYRE advocates to balance the school calendar across the calendar year. We're not advocating for additional days, but we're advocating for a shorter summer. If we just assume that the average number of school days across the nation is 180, we advocate for districts to spread those 180 days over the calendar year, so they reduce the amount of time a child is off in the summer. We have determined that best practice is between six and eight weeks of summer vacation. More than that, the learning loss gets greater. In my home district, we have two schools operating on the balanced school calendar.

How does that work?

They start early August every year, and then they take a little bit of time off around Labor Day. They take a two-week fall break. That's a great time to travel and vacation. You're no longer traveling with the masses. It's also a time to just recharge. They take a full week off at Thanksgiving, the typical two around the holidays in December. They take a mid-winter break in February, a two-week spring break in April and a one-week break around Memorial Day. Then they end late June, therefore starting the next school year six weeks later. So when you hear that configuration, it's much more balanced than having long learning chunks with that long break in between. The traditional calendar has a summer of somewhere between 12 and 13 weeks off. The balanced school calendar advocates for no longer than an eight week, but best practice would say six weeks of summer.

Why do you think this model is becoming more popular?

In this world of accountability where we're being transparent with achievement scores, finances, and everything else we do in school, educational leaders across districts and communities are looking for ways to minimize the summer learning loss, thus maximizing student achievement. A viable option for districts across the nation is the balanced school calendar.

Considering what we know about summer learning loss, why do you think there continues to be so much resistance to changing the school calendar?

It boils down to the fact that one of the few things we all have in common is that we went to school on the traditional calendar, and therefore parents and community members tend to have a strong opinion about their own kids having a long summer. People are longing for some of those traditions that are 200 years old. With that, however, the growing number of people out there that are advocating for the balanced calendar is inspiring, because I believe that the balanced calendar is more in line with business and our economic world. Families in our community certainly enjoy that two-week break in October. But I think the number one reason we have resistance is because we've all lived a common experience, and we think it worked for us as adults when we were kids. Therefore, we want it to work for our children, but I'm not convinced that it worked for all of us. I believe that the long summer had negative impacts on kids back 10, 20, and 30 years ago, and I believe it continues to have the same negative impact on children today.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

One big selling point for the balanced calendar is what is called intersession. It's a school experience that happens while you're on break. So, for instance, in Holt, we have 25 days of intercession. Now that could be purposed for enrichment, or it could be purposed for real-time remediation. So we're finding that intersession is closing learning gaps in real time rather than waiting for summer to hit and say, 'Now you can attend summer school to close your reading gap.' We're actually targeting certain children who need support in comprehension and fluency or math to attend intercession. Therefore, of our 180 school days, it's possible they're adding 25 days of school, and now they're somewhere in that 200 to 205 range of school days. It's a real easy way to close those learning gaps in real time.

Photo: Holt Public Schools Superintendent and Executive Director of the National Association for Year-Round Education David Hornak talks to students who attend a year-round school in his district. (David Trumpie)


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