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Lengthening the school year will bring a needed improvement to public education

Summer vacation may not be safe for much longer. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan ’86 reiterated President Obama’s belief that curtailing the length of summer breaks for public schools would be an important way to keep American students competitive with their counterparts in Europe and Asia. While shrinking summer might make fifth graders gasp in horror, it is also could be an important step in revitalizing American public schools. We hope that the Department of Education acts on the proposal but keeps in mind that, while lengthening the school year is a step forward, it should not occur at the expense of fixing the more fundamental problems in public education.

“Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here,” Duncan pointed out to the AP. Many studies indicate that it is during this prolonged summer that the gap between the performance of higher- and lower-income students widens most significantly.

Karl Alexander, the author of one such study, points out that “disadvantaged kids’ test scores improve at pretty comparable rates during the school year...But over the summer they fall behind.” Alexander went on to suggest that the disparity between the kind of environments higher- and lower-income students are exposed to over the summer is primarily responsible for this phenomenon. Higher-income students, he posited, are more likely to be exposed to such enriching experiences as private lessons, computers, newspapers, magazines, libraries, museums, having their parents read to them, and the like. The study indicated that poorer students, on the other hand, largely fail to make progress and sometimes even regress over the summer. Studies also show that more time in school can proffer marked gains in student performance. Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution, for example, examined the impact of increased time spent learning math on math scores, finding a significant increase when as little as 10 minutes were added to the school day.

Here in Massachusetts, early results for the expanded learning time initiative suggest that adding hours to the day or days to the year to expand time spent on both traditional academics and enrichment activities improve performance on state standardized tests. Charter schools, moreover, also appear to benefit from longer school years or days. The KIPP national network of charter schools, for example, has a school day typically running from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday class every other weekend, and a three-week summer session, and KIPP’s eighth-grade classes regularly outperform their district averages on standardized tests.

In addition to potentially improving student performance, a shorter summer would also help ensure the safety of lower- income students.“Those hours from 3 o’clock to 7 o’clock are times of high anxiety for parents,” said Duncan.

Duncan also noted that the current system of summer vacations of interminable duration is a vestige of another era. “Our school calendar is based upon the agrarian economy, and not too many of our kids are working the fields today,” Duncan said.

It would make a great deal of sense, therefore, to jettison the current system and transition to one in which students’ vacation time is spread out over the year at more balanced intervals, as some schools have already pioneered.

The United States ought not fear the possibility of overhauling summer as we know it in a dramatic fashion. We should not take off the table any method that has proven effective at improving the quality of American education.

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