With the “Back to School” ads appearing, many parents of school age children are secretly counting down the days and so are a surprising number of studious and totally bored kids. In the midst of that nine-week gap in K-12 schooling, politicians and the public could be forgiven for raising a few serious questions: Could students do with fewer holidays? Do they really need all that time off? And what’s the impact of lengthy gaps and the relatively short school year on student learning and achievement?
The dog days of mid-summer can be a challenge for house-bound families without ready access to cottages, camps, and recreational programs. Time hangs heavy for most kids when the heat rises, friends are away, and even those X-Box video games become monotonous. For the in-betweens, young teens ages 12 to 16, hanging out at the mall, around the empty schoolyard, or behind the railway tracks can be tiresome. Summer jobs today are hard to come-by and, late in the summer, American cities and towns report increased rates of juvenile crime as well as more risk-taking behaviours. http://www.thestar.com/comment/article/459031
Expanding learning time is now a high profile public issue in the United States, where President Barack Obama has challenged educators to “rethink the school calendar” and called for a longer school year. On the NBC Today Show in September 2010, he based his case on the fact that in high performing school systems like Korea kids go to school a month longer each year. Indeed, eight of 31 countries in the OECD now have school years of 195 days or more. http://www.eduinreview.com/blog/2010/09/obama-continues-to-support-year-round-school-for-americans-video/
A Toronto Globe and Mail “Time to Lead” series on the School Calendar in June 2011 put the issue squarely on the Canadian public agenda, but with a different twist. While recognizing that lengthening the school year might have an impact, lead reporter Tralee Pearce focused almost exclusively on the case –for and against—a lengthy summer break. Tampering with the conventional calendar of 185 six-and-a-half hour days was considered verboten. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/time-to-lead/does-year-round-schooling-make-the-grade/article2057863/
Time matters in public education, it seems, except when it comes to the length of school holidays and the duration of the instructional day. Studies by the OECD have established a clear link between the amount of learning time and student performance on international tests. OECD’s Cassandra Davis of “Education Today” made this prediction: “With policymakers focusing on staying internationally competitive through improving education, school may be out for a shorter summer in the future.” https://community.oecd.org/community/educationtoday/blog/2010/08/03/school-s-still-out-for-summer
Why is the Canadian debate so narrowly circumscribed? It comes down to this: In the Canadian system, teachers’ union contracts, strictly limit both the school year and the duration of the teaching day. That tends to short circuit the discussion and to doom all proposals for so-called “year round schools” to failure and to suffocate any discussion of a longer school day.
The phenomenon of “summer learning loss” is now a vitally-important issue for American education authorities, especially in the wake of the U.S. dismal results on the 2009 PISA tests. In April of 2011, a TIME Act was introduced in the U.S. Congress aimed at providing grants to states adding at least 300 hours to the school year in low performing schools. A Summer 2011 study by the National Center on Time and Learning demonstrates that many states are already heeding the President’s call for a longer school year by cutting back on holiday time. http://www.timeandlearning.org/
Previous initiatives since the early 1990s to introduce “Modified School Year” (MSY) plans in Canada have met with limited success. Most such initiatives hold fast to the conventional 180 day minimum model and simply break the year up in a more symmetrical fashion. After two decades, the Calgary School Board has had some success, but fewer than 100 Canadian schools have adopted the unfairly labelled “year-round-school” model. http://www.cbe.ab.ca/calendars/default.asp
Research supporting the move to a MSY is rather inconclusive. One oft cited study by Eileen C. Winter (2005) focused solely on a small sample of Ontario early years teachers and reaffirmed previous assumptions about “learning loss,” particularly among at-risk students. Some modest gains were reported in student attendance and attitudes, but not enough to justify a wholesale change in most communities. http://www.mpsd.ca/pdfs/A_Modified_School_Year.pdf
Expanding learning time by adding school days or hours to the instructional day would have much more benefit. The PISA test results support the OECD’s contention that lengthening the school year can produce measurable results in student achievement.
American public charter schools, like those sponsored by the KIPP Foundation and the Citizen Schools, provide further evidence. Extending the school year and offering required extended day activities are, according to the NCTL, “fundamentally changing the trajectory of students’ lives in high poverty communities.” http://www.timeandlearning.org/learningtimeinamerica/learningtimeinamerica.html
Tinkering with the summer holiday schedule may provide some solace for families without the means to keep kids fully occupied during the summer. Reducing the summer break from nine to six weeks would be a start, but only by significantly expanding learning time will we be able to keep pace with the leading countries in the educational world. It’s time to revamp teacher contracts and remove what the 1994 NTL Commission described as “the shackles of time” from our schools.
What’s stopping us from rethinking the School Calendar in most of Canada’s provinces? Why have ambitious moves to Modified School Year plans mostly fizzled since the early 1990s? Would simply reapportioning the holiday periods have much of an impact on student learning? Can we remain competitive with the world’s educational leaders without expanding our actual classroom learning time?