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Rethinking the School Calendar and Everything Else

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So we survived our long trip across the country: 8,086 miles, 19 states, two national parks, one meeting with a former U.S. president, and none the worse for wear. I won't bore you with the details, but let me say that you should get out and see this country if you haven't already. Especially if you're a teacher.

Before I left, the last post I wrote was called "In Praise of Summer Vacation." In it I suggested that this is something we ought to protect, not only as a benefit to students who need to be able to spend time doing things besides schoolwork (noting here that school doesn't have to only be a place for academic learning), but also as a safeguard against teacher burnout. Teaching is intense work, and for that reason alone time off is essential. It is also work that requires intellectual vigilance. I don't buy the argument that all good teachers are "natural" teachers or that teaching can't be taught, and because I don't believe that I also don't believe that it can ever truly be mastered. Like old power pitchers who have to figure out a way to get people out after the 95 mph fastballs stop coming, veteran teachers have to make adjustments. When a wily old pitcher does it you might hear a commentator say: "He used to be a thrower, but now he knows how to pitch." The same goes for teaching.

But I digress. I'm not reflexively opposed to the idea of changing the traditional school calendar, and I'm not married to the idea that summer vacation, in particular, must be protected at all costs. What I do believe is this: we should question the assumptions of anyone who claims to have a simple solution to our educational "woes," whatever they may be, and we should do more to respect the work of teachers. If we can manipulate the calendar to do that without harming students in the process, we should.

On the first count, the evidence supporting the notion that we should change the calendar is hardly definitive. Many people who want to change the calendar tell us that the calendar we have was made for a different time and that we need to bring it into the 21st century. But most of what you've heard about that is wrong. The calendar we have has as much to do with the fact that air conditioning wasn't widely available until the middle of the 20th century as it does with how many kids had parents who were farmers. So there's that.

They also talk about "intersessions" and "summer melt" and ways that year-round, or "balanced," calendars free educators up to bring yet more remediation into the lives of students who struggle to see the value and purpose of school. I'm not belittling these concerns—of course we need to do everything we can to deliver a high quality education to all children and if it means reteaching things we wanted them to learn already, we may sometimes have to do that. But let's be careful about how we make the argument. If you want to argue that year-round schooling is better for the intellectual, emotional, and social development of kids (and their teachers), I'm right there with you. I'm willing to believe that more time spent in a constructive, inviting, clean, and safe learning environment is good for everyone. But you're wasting your time if you think you can convince me that an extra three weeks of remediation will definitely improve student scores on standardized tests, which is the argument I hear most often. 

Let me be more clear: I haven't seen the data yet confirming that balanced calendars have any real impact at all on test scores, one way or the other. One convincing meta-analysis of several other studies concluded that summer learning loss hits low income students hardest, which is unsurprising, but added: "The present synthesis does not assess whether alternative schedule calendars, such as those that include the present number of school days but distribute shorter and more frequent vacations throughout the year, are actually more effective than the present calendar." In other words, summer melt is real but changing the calendar alone is probably not going to make it go away. The obvious implication here is that socieconomically advantaged students are also educationally advantaged too. Closing the gap between the haves and have-nots is going to do more to improve the learning outcomes of students than tinkering with the school calendar will. 

But does that mean that we should just stick to the calendar we have? I'm not so sure. I think it makes good sense to tinker with things if we do it in a thoughtful and deliberate way, and I wonder if thinking differently about how we use time in school couldn't solve some problems for us. I know, for example, that when schools try to change school day start and end times—an issue upon which the research is actually pretty clear—it often wreaks havoc on the schedules of parents. I also know that one of the most precious commodities a teacher can have is time. Is there a solution that would bridge these two concerns? Is there, in other words, a way to design a school schedule and calendar that meets the expectations of parents and helps teachers do their jobs better?

Maybe so. The first problem is the harder of the two, since the emerging economy of the 21st century treats so many workers as interchangeable parts, and since many middle- and lower-income workers have to scramble to pick up work hours when they can. That shouldn't stop us from encouraging the passage of new laws and regulations that protect workers by stabilizing their work hours. It could be done, believe it or not. Schools could agree to stay open longer, and could build additional activities into the school day—art, music, social events; the kinds of things we cut when budgets are eviscerated—to remake themselves as true centers of their communities again. If we're serious about pushing for such changes, schools could lead the way by working together to push for cultural changes that benefit both kids and their parents.

And what about teachers? Maybe what we need to do is give students more time in school and teachers less—or, rather, permit teachers to spend more time on their teaching and less on the other responsibilities we heap on them. Maybe if we did a better job of addressing the question of what kinds of people we want our kids to be the question of how much time they need to spend in school, and how they spend it, would answer itself. Maybe, in other words, we'd find that kids could get more out of school by spending less time "doing" school in the sense most of us think about it. Maybe what they need is less remediation and more enrichment. Although those words are sometimes used interchangeably they don't mean the same thing.

And maybe full-time, credentialed teachers aren't needed to provide all of it. Maybe teachers should focus more exclusively on academic subjects while other community members drop in to coach sports, explain what they do at work all day, sing a song, read a story, or describe a trip recently taken to another country. We tend to expect teachers to do just about everything now, but if we drew more people into the educational process we might actually be able to provide better educational opportunities for kids and more time for professional teachers to dedicate to their craft. All it would take is a slight change in what we think education is for, and who's responsible for providing it. It would be a strong first step, anyway.

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