Year-Round School Yields Uncertain Benefits
> 8/13/2007 3:17:12 PM

The year-round school debate has made its quiet way around the educational sphere for more than two decades, with proponents and detractors lining up to make their respective points at the end of each successive season. The majority of our students attend standard nine-month programs that end for three months each summer, but progressive education advocates have long argued that this vacation-oriented schedule "has its origins in the agricultural calendar, when children worked on the farm after school and during the summer," and that it amounts to an irrelevant artifact of a pre-industrial revolution mindset. The percentage of students in the United States who attend year-round programs has held relatively steady at around 20% for the past 15 years after more than quadrupling in a short period in the 1990's, but the majority of these students attend schools on the west coast, and the war of ideas persists throughout the country's academic quarters. Most schools that go year-round adopt the revised scheduling policies in order to curb overcrowding by allocating vacation periods to different groups of students at different times, but policy advocates continue to argue that students will learn more when working from a more consistent schedule instead of taking three months off to effectively forget everything they've learned over the past year.

New research adds considerable fuel to the opposing fire: the test scores of students in year-round programs do not improve any faster than those of their traditionally scheduled peers. Drawing data from longitudinal studies by the U.S. Department of Education to measure the academic performance of students in public and private schools across the country, researchers from Ohio State University compiled the stats on some one thousand students and determined that gains in math and reading test scores were no greater for the students at year-round schools than they were for those attending standard nine-month programs. After controlling for variables like socioeconomic status, researchers considered the scores that children received on reading and math tests given during the first and last weeks of both kindergarten and first grade in order to measure their proficiency both after the summer break and during the conclusion of each successive school year. While the infamous "summer slowdown," whereby children don't seem to gain or retain much practical knowledge over the vacation, is real, the testing improvements displayed by year-round students were less than one percent greater than those of their 9-month peers. Overall gains were tepid at best.

This study, while disappointing to year-round school advocates, hardly justifies the summer break system; one of the main reasons for the relatively even performance levels is the fact that the children in question spent the same amount of time sitting in class each year. By dividing vacation time into smaller three-to-four week segments scheduled throughout school calendar, educators have not increased the number of hours each student actually spends in class. Perhaps the best way to address this problem is not to rearrange vacation time but to actually keep kids in class for more hours every year. Expecting them to learn more over the same period of time simply because their summer vacations have been eliminated is unrealistic. Ensuring that each child has access to summer activities that are both fun and academically relevant might make the difference, but such principles are impossible to enforce. If we want them to learn more, we have to teach them more, and we can only do that by keeping them in class longer. Even thirty additional minutes a day might make a difference, but we can't imagine that the majority of our student body would be happy with such a development.  The neccessary changes will most likely take place over decades, and many more underperforming children will be lost in the shuffle. Sometimes the least popular options are, unfortunately, the only ones that make sense.

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