This year's back-to-school trend is going back to school a month early: more public schools are adding 20 days to the traditional 180-day school calendar. According to the New York Times, only around 170 schools, more than 140 of them charter schools, have made the switch in recent years. But Obama is a big supporter of academic calendar restructuring, and both the Ford Foundation and the Wallace Foundation have recently donated millions of dollars to helping nonprofits work with school districts to expand school times.
There are both pros and cons to cutting down summer vacation time. (And we're not including any kids' points of view, here, although one fifth grader, Riziki Gloria, did tell the paper that "Sometimes summer is really boring." Let's hope Riziki Gloria's classmates don't read the NYT.) Supporters say that the only way students from low-income families can catch up with richer students is to stay in school longer, so they don't forget what they learned the year before, especially if they're at home with parents who don't read with them. Many of the most successful charter schools say their kids are excelling because they lengthened the school year.
Others argue that the traditional 180-day school year is no longer relevant because most children aren't farmers. "The fact that our calendar has been based on the agrarian economy when almost none of our kids work in the field anymore," said Arne Duncan, secretary of education, "doesn't make any sense whatsoever." (Side note: does that mean the issue of whether we have to honor daylight savings is back on the table, too?)
So far, no research has definitively concluded that longer school days and/or years help kids. But even if we assume more days = more learning, we can't solve everything just by adding 20 days to the academic calendar. More days means more teachers, which means we have to pay more teachers, which means schools across the country have had to abandon calendar-lengthening hopes because of state budget cuts and other financial issues. Some teachers don't want to work overtime — and some parents don't want their kids to work overtime, either, since once they graduate they'll most likely have to work for the rest of their lives. Isn't summertime for family vacations and camp and other all-American outdoor activities?
Plus, if we add more time, what will we do with it? Some say it's a mistake to do more of the same, and stress that it's just as important to add extra art and music classes — classes more affluent kids take outside of school — as it is to spend more time studying history. "Better is as important as the more," said Jeannie Oakes, director of educational opportunity and scholarship programs at the Ford Foundation.
Others are more pessimistic, and say our public education system is so fucked that adding more classes, regardless of the type, isn't the solution. "It is true that we have an unfair society, and it is true that kids who are coming from the poorer backgrounds and whose parents don't do a lot of reading are losing reading skills over the summer," said Peter Gray, research professor of psychology at Boston College. "But let's look at other solutions." Why's that? Well, according to Gray, "Whatever job we give to the school system, they ruin it."
Image via Dawn Shearer-Simonetti Shutterstock.