Toying with School Calendars (Part 1)

 Pandemic-related school closures, which caused an alarming rate of learning loss among the country’s most vulnerable students, have prompted some administrators to reconsider the school calendar.

An earlier start date, a later end date and numerous, elongated breaks throughout the year could allow more timely remediation for children in need — and enrichment for those who are not.

Altering schools and classroom practices is tough to do. Americans criticize their schools a lot and although schooling and teaching lessons has changed considerably over the past century, criticism continues. With three school years affected by Covid-19, reformers’ eyes have turned to the school calendar.

With the loss of school days (most states require students to attend school at least 180 days a year) and fears of students piling up learning deficits while out of school, the pandemic has brought back policy discussions on altering the annual school calendar.

Fixing school time has been a popular solution reform-minded policymakers have promoted to improve U.S. schools. Since A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, Prisoners of Time in 1994, blue-ribbon commission recommendations in Tough Choices, Tough Times in 2007, and in 2012 high profile leaders formed a new national coalition to add time to the school day and year, reformers have criticized no end how long and how well students spend time in school.

Criticism of school schedules comes from business and civic leaders who see the United States stuck in the middle ranks of nations based on student scores on international tests. These leaders see a link between Asian and European governments requiring more days in school than the U.S. and those foreign students scoring far higher than U.S. test-takers.

Criticism of the amount of time students spend in school comes from employers who wonder whether limited days and hours spent in classes are sufficient to produce the knowledge, skills, and behaviors employees need to work in a globally competitive economy

Criticism of school schedules also come from those working parents who need schools open early in the morning and remain open until they pick up their children before dinner.

Criticism also comes from professors who scold policymakers for allotting so little time for teachers to gain new knowledge and skills during the school day. Many want policymakers to distinguish between requiring more time in school and academic learning time or time on task, jargon for those hours and minutes where teachers engage students in learning content and skills ( Berliner, What’s all the fuss about instructional time).

Finally, criticism of time in school comes from online champions who see hundreds of students sitting at school desks for 180 days as quaint when a revolution in communication devices has allowed children to learn the formal curriculum at home and other venues rather than in school buildings. Online learning advocates, joined by those who see cyber-schools as the future, want children and youth to spend less time in K-12 school buildings.

How Successful Have Critics Been in Fixing School Time?

Presidential commissions, parents, academics, and employers have proposed to policymakers the same solutions again and again: Add more days to the annual school calendar. Create year-round schools. Add instructional time to the daily schedule. Extend the school day. These familiar—almost traditional–recommendations are as close as one can come, metaphorically, to the missionary position in sex. What has happened to each proposal in the past quarter-century?

Longer school year. Recommendations for a longer school year (from 180 to 220 days) have come from A Nation at Risk (1983) and Prisoners of Time (1994) plus scores of other commissions and experts. Yet over a decade later, one foundation-funded report, A Stagnant Nation: Why American Students Are Still at Risk, found that the 180-day school year was intact across the nation and only Massachusetts had started a pilot program to help districts lengthen the school year. The same report graded states’ progress made on those quarter-century old recommendations: States extending their school year received an “F.”

Year-round schools. The homespun myth that the annual school calendar with three months off for both teachers and students is based on the rhythm of 19th century farm life still receives respectful attention. Thus, planting and harvesting chores accounted for long summer breaks, an artifact of agrarian America. Not so.

Actually summer vacations grew out of early 20th century urban middle-class parents (and later lobbyists for camps and the tourist industry) pressing school boards to release children to be with their families for four to eight weeks or more. By the 1960s, however, policymaker and parent concerns about students losing ground academically during the vacation months—in academic language, “summer loss”—gained support for year-round schooling. Cost savings also attracted those who saw facilities being used 12 months a year rather than being shuttered during the summer.

Nonetheless, although year-round schools were established as early as 1906 in Gary, Indiana, calendar innovations have had a hard time entering most schools. Districts with year round schools still work within the 180-day year but distribute the time more evenly (e.g., 45 days in session; 15 days off) rather than having a long break between June and September. As of 2020, nearly over 95 percent of public schools operate on a traditional annual calendar. In most cases, what got school boards to adopt year-round schools was increased enrollments crowding facilities, most often in minority and poor communities—not concerns over “summer loss.”

Adding instructional time to the school day. So many researchers and reformers have pointed out that the 6.5 hour school day has so many interruptions, so many distractions that teachers have less than five hours of genuine classroom instruction for student learning. Advocates of more instructional time have tried to stretch the actual amount of instructional time available to teachers to a seven-hour day (or 5.5 hours of time for time-on-task learning) or have tried to redistribute the existing secondary school schedule into 90-minute blocks rather than the traditional 50-minute periods. Very hard to do. Much easier has been to add time to the school day.

Extended school day. In the past half-century, as the economy has changed and families increasingly have both (or single) parents working, schools have been pressed to take on child-care responsibilities such as tutoring and homework supervision before and after school. Many elementary schools open at 7 AM for parents to drop off their children and have after-school programs that close at 6 PM in many middle class neighborhoods but especially in neighborhoods serving low-income families. Opinion polls since the early 1980s show increased support for these before- and after-school programs (KAPPAN poll). Moreover, all-day kindergartens (and pre-kindergartens for four year-olds), especially in low-income neighborhoods have spread swiftly in the past two decades. Innovative urban schools such as Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) run longer school days. The latter routinely opens at 7:30 AM and closes at 5 PM while scheduling biweekly Saturday classes and three weeks of school during the summer.

If there is a success story in fixing school time that reformers can thump their chests over, it is in extending the school day. How much of that success, however, came from reformers’ arguments and actions and how much came from economic and social changes in American family structure and chasing a higher standard of living, I cannot say.

Cybereducation. And what about those cheer-leading technological enthusiasts who see fixing time in school as a wasted effort when online schooling can replace formal schooling? Especially after schools closed initially in early 2020 and immediately converted to online instruction. After nearly three school years of pandemic closures and re-openings, remote instruction continues to be promoted.

Yet even the most enthusiastic advocate of cyber schools and online schooling recognizes that replacing face-to-face instruction is, at best, unlikely. For time-fixing reformers who see the solution to low academic performance in adding days and hours to school schedules, however, the foreseeable future will still have 50-plus million children and youth crossing the schoolhouse door each weekday morning. And decade after decade, these reformers have trotted out the same recipes for changes in the annual calendar and extending time in school. Yet for all the hoopla and endorsement from highly influential business and political elites results of their mighty efforts have been minuscule. Why is that?

Cost is the usual suspect. The price tag of extending the school year to cover additional teacher salaries and other expenses runs high. One researcher estimated that going from 175 to 200 days would cost the state of Minnesota, not the largest state in the nation, $750 million a year, a large but not insurmountable price to pay. But costs for extending the school day for instruction and child-care are far less onerous. Even more attractive than adding more days to the calendar is the claim that a year-round school saves dollars. Except, then, for lengthening the school calendar, which is, at heart, a political decision about the allocation of scarce education dollars, cost is not the tipping point factor in explaining why it is so hard to fix school time. There are other reasons: I offer three in Part 2.

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