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Is Shorter School Year a Threat?

Reformers confidently assert that reducing the number of days students spend in school will be a disaster. Since most states define a school year as consisting of 180 days of learning, they charge that anything fewer will shortchange students ("Shorter school year is a nonstarter," The Sacramento Bee, Jun. 24). I'm not convinced.

Rather than automatically assuming that school time per se is the issue, I think it's how the time is spent that is crucial. In fact, more time alone is likely to be counterproductive under the present antiquated timetable. During the 28 years that I taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I remember vividly how little was learned by students in the last few weeks of the semester. Students and teachers were both exhausted. The lockstep five classes-a-day, five-days-a-week schedule was responsible.

We can deceive ourselves that unless we emulate the instructional hours of our competitors abroad our students are doomed. But I maintain that it's far more effective to redesign the typical 180-day school year in light of the severe budget shortfalls facing most states. Specifically, it would have regular two-week breaks. These frequent mini-vacations would maximize learning and minimize burnout. Instruction indeed would be more intense during the learning blocs than at present, but it would stand a better chance of being successful.

I say that because of what economists call the law of diminishing returns. Up to a certain point, adding more resources will provide maximum yield. After that point has been reached, however, anything additional results in smaller yield. In other words, every additional unit of input leads to lesser and lesser output. In education, it means that increasing the school year beyond a certain point will not increase learning. (I'm assuming that reformers don't want teachers merely to be babysitters.)

Critics will be quick to note that no one knows where the sweet spot is. They point to schools in high-performing countries on tests of international competition, which supposedly have a much longer school year. But "The data clearly shows [sic] that most U.S. schools require at least as much or more instructional time as other countries, even high-performing countries like Finland, Japan, and Korea" ("Time in school: How does the U.S. compare?" Center for Public Education," Dec. 2011).

So let's not become alarmists about the new realities confronting schools districts across the nation. There can be a silver lining in the cloud formation.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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