Another School Year Begins in August

I have been struck by the lack of demands on school boards to lengthen the school year because students have fallen behind in academics because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Media reports on “learning loss” (see here and here), I would have thought, would have fanned the flames of reform-minded policymakers and parents to add days to the school calendar so that in 2022, schools would start in early to mid-August. Looking at the history of the annual school calendar may bring a tad of understanding to the question of why the familiar opening of schools after Labor Day in early September, the traditional start time for U.S. schools for nearly a century, has been steadily pushed back by more and more districts to August.see here, here, and here).

Answers include increased teacher efficiency  (more time to prepare students for standardized tests), catering to students and families (smoother closing of first semester before winter holidays) and a school year that ends in late May (reduces graduating seniors’ shenanigans in last few weeks of school). Few pundits and policymakers, however, offer the simple answer that the school calendar is (and historically has been) a political compromise.

The absence of parent cadres and media editorials pushing district school boards to increase the number of days students attend because of Covid-19 is in stark contrast to the highly-charged, crisis-ridden vocabulary of 40 years ago about U.S. students spending far less time in schools than international peers who were beating the pants off Americans on tests. 

In the 1980s, the short school year of 180 days was believed to be the cause of U.S. students’ mediocre showing on international tests. Recommendations for a longer school year (up to 220 days) came from A Nation at Risk (1983) and Prisoners of Time (1994) plus scores of other commissions and experts. In 2008, a 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. The length of the school year even with current earlier starts in August today remains around 180 days of school.

What about year-round schools?  There is a homespun myth, treated as fact, that the annual school calendar, with three months off for both teachers and students, is based on the rhythm of 19th-century farm life, which dictated when school was in session. 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, policy maker 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 2015, about four percent of the nation’s 100,000 public schools had a year-round calendar. Almost half of the year-round schools are in California. In most cases, school boards adopted year-round schools because increased enrollments led to crowded facilities, most often in minority and poor communities —not concerns over “summer loss” in academic achievement.

What about lengthened school day? Since the 1990s, especially in urban districts, children and youth coming to school earlier and leaving later with the addition of after-school programs has extended the school day in districts across the nation.

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 childcare responsibilities, such as tutoring and home work supervision before and after school. Many elementary schools open at 7 a.m. for parents to drop off children and have after-school programs that close at 6 p.m. PDK/Gallup polls since the early 1980s show increased support for these before-and after-school programs. Instead of the familiar half-day program for 5-year-olds, all-day kindergartens (and prekindergartens for 4-year-olds) have spread swiftly in the past two decades, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Innovative urban schools, such as KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), run longer school days. They routinely open at 7:30 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. and also schedules biweekly Saturday classes and three weeks of school during the summer.

If reformers want a success story in fixing school time, they can look to extending the school day, although it’s arguable how many of those changes occurred because of reformers’ arguments and actions and how much from economic and social changes in family structure and the desire to chase a higher standard of living. According to recent studies, high-quality after school programs improve children and youth attitudes, behaviors, and achievement (see OSTissuebrief10-1    ) .But those schools still run on 180-day schedules.

After thirty years of reform furor over long summers and insufficient time in school, reformers of that generation can look today at increasing numbers of  districts opening in mid-August yet many others still hanging on to an early September opening.  Extended day with child care and after-school programs have spread across the nation’s schools. For those school reformers then and now who still believe that more time in school leads to higher performance on tests, the results are, at best, mixed.

Even with reformers intense pressure to get U.S. students schooled for longer periods of time, pushback from parents, voters and taxpayers have kept the number of school days in session and vacations pretty close to what they have been for decades.

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