The traditional school year, with roughly three months of vacation days every summer, was first implemented when America was an agricultural society. The time off was not implemented to accommodate contemporary concerns, like children needing "down time" to decompress and "be kids," but was born out of economic necessity. In fact, the first schools that went against the summers-off version of the academic calendar were in urban areas that did not revolve around the agricultural calendar, like Chicago and New York, as early as the mid-1800s. It was much later, however, that the idea as a whole gained momentum.
A survey of school decision-makers in 1971 found that 84 percent of respondents felt that year-round schooling would be in all U.S. schools within the next 15 years. As we know now, those respondents were wrong but it makes sense that they would feel that way. Two districts in San Diego were the first to implement year-round academic calendars in 1971 and by the 1974, there were another 13 in the state that followed suit. Even today, California and its neighbors lead the year-round trend, with four-fifths of all of these school schedules in the nation happening in Western states. Over half of them are implemented in California. In total, over 2 million U.S. students attend school on year-round schedules every year in around 3,000 schools in 46 states.
So what impact does this non-traditional school schedule have on the people it most affects - the students?
A long-time thorn in the side of K-12 educators has been the "summer slide," or the theory that knowledge is lost when students get so much time off (like in the summer months) from academic pursuits. The National Summer Learning Association often cites decades of research that support the claim that students really do forget or unlearn things they have learned when too much time off is given between classroom sessions. A study released in 2007 by The Ohio State University, however, found that there are really no differences in learning between students who attend school year round, and those who are on a traditional schedule.
While the overall student numbers show no significant differences in learning for better or worse, at-risk students tend to do better in year-round setups. Studies have found that disadvantaged students lose about 27 percent more of their learning gains in the summer months than their peers. By being in school the same number of days, but with shorter breaks, these students are able to keep their minds on a learning track that may not otherwise be fostered at home in the off-months.
In districts that use year-round schedules, there are two models: single track and multi-track. In the latter, students are in groups that place them on different schedules and different vacation times. The main benefit to dividing students in this way is that those who need extra or remedial help can attend school on the off days since there are still teachers on campus. It is similar to the concept of summer school, but takes place throughout the year and may only require one or two weeks here and there, instead of an entire summer's time.
Parents are split into two groups when it comes to the way students' socialization is impacted by year-round schooling. Some say that kids seem more interested in school without the stop-and-go routine of traditional academic calendars. Others complain that students on year-round schedules, particularly multi-track ones, miss out on time with their friends and come to resent school as a result. Overall, the social growth of students is thought to not change much since they are still in session the same number of days each year and have shorter gaps in time apart from peers.
Overall, year-round schooling seems to show a slight advantage academically to students enrolled, but the numbers of students are not high enough to really get a good read on it at this point. What does seem clear, however, is that at-risk students do fare better without a long summer break, and other students are not harmed by the year-round schedule.
In my next post, I will look at the way year-round schooling impacts the teaching profession.
Do you think year-round schooling benefits or harms students?
Dr. Matthew Lynch is the author of the recently released book, The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching. To order it via Amazon, please click on the following link.