Over the past few years, there has been an increased call to reduce the standard summer break and switch to a year-round school model. The very idea horrifies most students while generating mixed emotions from parents. Parents often plan vacations during the summer around the school break, but many also struggle to secure childcare throughout those months. Teachers too have positive and negative things to say about this plan.
There are a lot of misconceptions about year-round school. Learn more about these policies along with the arguments for and against implementing them.
There Are Multiple Styles of Year-Round Learning
There is a clear reason why educators and administrators are considering implementing year-round school policies again: the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote learning proved that districts can make big changes and teachers and students will adapt to the new policies. While year-round school won’t be as hastily implemented, the pandemic showed how flexible and resilient people can be.
“The COVID-19 pandemic really gave school districts a reason to look at how we organize when teaching and learning happens,” says Latoya Dixon, Ph.D., assistant superintendent of academic innovation and professional learning at York School District One in South Carolina.
The main thing to know about year-round school is that most districts that implement this policy don’t actually increase the number of days spent in the classroom. Students have the same amount of time away from school except that it is broken up over multiple breaks.
“Over the years, we’ve moved away from what is called the year-round calendar, because when you say, ‘year-round,’ parents and stakeholders believe you’re going to school 300-plus days a year, and that’s not the case,” says Dr. David G. Hornak, executive director of the National Association for Year-Round Education.
The preferred term is “balanced calendar,” because it reflects the more evenly distributed time off during the year. While summer break is only 30 days off, students can enjoy a 15-day fall break around Labor Day, along with similar winter and spring breaks.
There are other types of year-round school as well. As noted, balanced school refers to learning throughout the year with more breaks while multitrack school occurs with students divided into groups on different schedules.
What’s Behind the Change to Year-Round Schooling?
The main goal of year-round schooling is not to benefit students in terms of their education.
“Most public conversation about balanced calendars assumes that they are designed to help students learn,” write professors Paul T. von Hippel and Jennifer Graves. “In fact, over the past 50 years, a major reason districts have adopted balanced calendars is to address overcrowding and save money.”
They use the example of a multitrack school district that breaks students into four groups (A, B, C and D). When groups A, B and C are in school, group D is on break. The groups continue to alternate in order to accommodate more students without hiring additional staff or installing trailers.
As you talk about year-round school, it’s important to have a clear idea of what the learning schedule looks like and the number of days students would spend in the classroom.
Year-Round School Prevents Learning Loss
The argument in favor of year-round school is that it prevents summer brain drain. There is less time for students to forget what they learned in the previous year, so teachers can spend less time reviewing material and more time applying existing knowledge to new concepts.
“Research says students lose some of what they learned during the summer. We want to eliminate the summer slide,” says Dr. Tony B. Watlington Sr., superintendent of The School District of Philadelphia. “We want to give children more time by extending the school day, or adding more days, beyond 180 days.”
That said, Watlington promises to meet with the community to see what parents think about this option. He wants to create an opt-in model for year-round school.
“When students are out of school for three months, there is a lot of ground to make up,” says Melissa Jones, a teacher who spent nine years educating in year-round school. She noticed less learning loss over the course of short breaks compared to longer ones.
Opponents of year-round school say students do their own learning away from the classroom. They gain life experiences, attend summer camps, and travel. However, this is also a highly privileged viewpoint. For every student who is able to attend Space Camp for fun over the summer, there are plenty more who don’t have access to resources like these.
“Many children actually spend their summers unsupervised with few organized activities to keep them occupied,” says teacher Brian Tucker at Lab to Class. “Parents who are working, unless they are teachers, do not get whole summers off along with their children. While they can schedule their vacation time during this time to maximize family time, this is rarely an option for lower-income families where both parents are working.”
School Provides a Safe Place for Learners
People in favor of year-round school also highlight how important schools are for student support. For many learners, school is the one safe place they can go each day while their parents work.
“Forget about the notion that summer enrichment activities are meant to help students get ahead,” writes strategy consultant Amanda Claypool. “For 12 weeks every summer kids in lower- and middle-income households lose their safety net and the source of stability that comes with it.”
Schools also play a key role in feeding students. Long summer breaks can cause high levels of anxiety for students and parents who rely on school food programs.
“Summer hunger and food insecurity can cause both physical and mental health problems and lead to poor educational performance when school starts again,” writes the team at Move for Hunger. Only about five million kids get free or reduced meals during the summer months, while nearly 30 million do so during the school year. Some 22 million children go hungry every summer.
Admittedly, these concerns aren’t directly related to learning. It’s unfair to say that students shouldn’t have summer breaks and opportunities to rest because there aren’t support systems in place outside of the education system for food-insecure families.
Insufficient Studies That This Model Works
The big question that teachers and administrators want answered is whether year-round or balanced learning actually benefits students. While some teachers have positive experiences with this model, others don’t see improvements.
“If ‘works’ means an improvement in student achievement, then there is insufficient data to answer that question, especially for single-track calendars,” write Daniel H. Robinson and Nicole Miller, associate dean of research at the University of Texas and associate professor at Mississippi State, respectively.
“One review found modestly higher student achievement for year-round compared with traditional calendar schooling, but it was also plagued with what we believe were poor studies on which to base conclusions.”
Income inequality also plays a role in this discussion. If the goal is to prevent learning loss and support lower-income students, the changes might disproportionately help high-income students with existing resources instead.
“Year-round schools, by design, target all students within a given school,” says Dr. Cara Jackson, senior associate at Abt Associates and adjunct professorial lecturer at American University. “If the goal is to address achievement gaps, implementing year-round calendars for low-performing schools is one approach. If it’s more desirable to target individual students who need support, summer school or tutoring programs might be better options.”
Once again, the solution can’t be to reduce summer vacations just for those students whose parents are unable to send them to enriching summer camps.
“None of this should serve as an excuse to box a single child up for additional weeks of uninspired schoolwork,” says Dr. Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “No one should imagine that locking kids in chaotic classrooms or lifeless schools during bright summer days is doing them any favors.”
Summer Break Also Provides Academic Benefits
The main argument in favor of keeping summer break is that it gives everyone in the education environment time to reset between one year and the next.
Students have a tremendous amount of pressure put on them throughout the year. Summer gives them space after intense exams and studying to rest so they don’t feel burned out going into the next year.
“After a demanding academic year, summer break brings respite and a chance to rejuvenate,” writes the team at Moonpreneur. “As we’ve all been through the grind, we know students juggle academic responsibilities, extracurricular activities, and social expectations, which often leads to high levels of stress and pressure during the school year.”
The debate regarding year-round school is complicated. It’s not a solution to replace existing safety nets for food and childcare. If administrators are going to implement a more balanced learning calendar, they need to do so because it benefits the learning experience of students. These policies need to support all students, without favoring privileged learners or punishing lower-income kids.
This is what makes the policies so challenging. Equitable learning continues to be one of the hardest goals to achieve across the American education system. It’s unclear whether year-round school supports or harms those goals.
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