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The 10-month School Calendar: A Vestige of the Past?

It’s that time again! Students are back at school, or heading back soon, after ten to twelve weeks off.  Summer provides a welcome break for most students and teachers, but how does the traditional ten-month school calendar affect student performance?

What does the research say?

The deficits that occur from “summer fade” most often affect students who are at-risk or from low socio-economic areas. According to a study by Harris Cooper, students can experience as much as three months of academic setback per grade level from the extended break.1 When you take into account the “wind down” time in June and the time used for review in the fall, the “summer break” makes up at least one-quarter of the year… but more likely one-third. Other research has shown that in the last few decades, high-achieving students in America have been steadily losing their educational ranking in the world and receive considerably less instructional time than students in other countries do.2. Most studies reveal that students benefit from year-round calendars because those schools provide accelerated programs, advanced classes, and remedial support at regular intervals—rather than all at the end in preparation for exams, for instance.

So, why do we break for 2 months?

History indicates that the nine or ten month calendar was implemented in the early 1800s to accommodate agrarian needs and community events.  While some students still have farming obligations during the summer months in rural areas in the United States and Canada, this work is now not as frequently done by students, given the degree to which farming has become heavily industrialized.  Another consideration was the weather; the hot summer months led to unhealthy conditions, including epidemics. Health advancements and temperature control in learning environments have largely eliminated this problem in the U.S.  So, without these original obstacles for year-round education, why continue the ten-month calendar?

Why not reform?

Even though studies point to higher student performance in year-round schools, many people oppose reform because it would have negative impacts on summer economies. Critics of year-round schools argue that summer industries, such as tourism that tend to utilize student workers, would be negatively affected. Others feel that non-academic influences such as athletics and family vacations prevent calendar reform in many districts.  However, in 1972 California led the way in the move back to year-round schooling.  Other states followed, but they are still in the minority.

For now, it seems that societal influences have a greater influence on determining if a school will move to a year-round schedule than the potential academic benefits do. But for the first time in the history of education, students seem to be taking matters into their own hands.  The rise in online education in the 1990s speaks to the desire for a different model–one that allows more flexibility during the traditional school year and a self-paced learning style that eliminates traditional school timelines from the equation.  Students use online programs during the summer months to improve their previous marks and accelerate their high school program. These students would rather trade off some free time in the summer to give themselves more freedom and life-balance during the other ten months of the year.

Such trends are well worth thinking about.

As a teacher, parent, student, or administrator, what do you think about the ten-month school calendar?

Notes:

Illinois Department of Education, “Coalition for student achievement” Education Business Weekly, April 2009, p. 5.

H Cooper, B. Nye, K. Charlton, J. Lindsey, “The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review” Review of Educational Research 66 (3), 1996, p.227.

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