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Carolyn Shields

It's time to change our outdated school calendar Add to ...

We often hear that the current school-year calendar in Canada is "agrarian," dating from an earlier time when students needed to be free during the summer to work in the fields (although I know no farmer whose planting or harvesting are done between June and August). What we have is a 150 year-old compromise.

In the mid 1850s, rural schools were open only six months a year, while many urban schools offered classes year-round (with students often attending pretty much at will). To accommodate the newly advocated "common curriculum," reformers Egerton Ryerson in Canada and Horace Mann in the U.S. negotiated the current compromise - a nine-month school year.

It's time for a new compromise - one that considers both the needs of those who are highly successful and those whose circumstances make success more difficult in the current system.

Year-round schooling is a misnomer - children attend school for roughly the same number of days as they do in a traditional calendar year; the difference is that vacation periods are more evenly redistributed throughout the school terms.

The new, shorter summer vacation still leaves time (often a minimum of one month) for summer fun, while reducing summer learning loss and boredom. The redistribution of the long vacation also permits breaks during the rest of the year, just when students and teachers seem to need them.

Both the experiences of practitioners and research results show more consistent learning throughout the year, increased motivation for both teachers and students, improved safety due to a reduction of disciplinary incidents and tensions, and more learning time for all students due to reduced review time.

Reducing or eliminating summer learning loss is a key benefit of a "year-round" schedule. Children from more advantaged families tend to acquire between nine and 12 months' worth of learning during the school year, while their less advantaged peers acquire between eight and 11 months of learning.

During the long summer vacation, children from more advantaged families enjoy travel with their families, enroll in a myriad of summer camps, sporting and enrichment activities. The result is that during the summer, they gain an additional three to four months' worth of learning for a total of between 12 and 16 months during the calendar year. Children from less advantaged families do not have the same summer opportunities. They rarely travel; they cannot afford summer camps, art, music or sporting experiences, and often must spend their time inside, watching television, waiting for a parent to return from work.

Here the result is disastrous. These children tend to lose between three and four months' worth of learning for an overall total during the calendar year of from four to eight months of learning. Hence the achievement gap grows - exponentially.

The other major benefit to the reduced summer vacation period is the potential for what is known as "intersession activities" that can be inserted during the regular breaks throughout the school year. These brief additional sessions benefit those who need a bit of extra time or some additional instruction to learn the upcoming important concepts or vocabulary (especially if their first language isn't English), or to acquire vicarious experiences to be discussed in the coming units.

Schools that offer intersession experiences have repeatedly found that test scores and learning increase well beyond that encountered by offering summer-school remediation. Trying to catch students up after they have been deemed "failures" is less productive than preparing them in advance for forthcoming instruction.

Additional benefits accrue to working parents who have to struggle to provide child care over an extended time. They appreciate the fact that when vacation periods are redistributed, child care costs are also spread over the whole year. Community agencies have found it helpful to offer activities throughout the year rather than during a condensed time frame.

Do children need down time? Absolutely! And a year-round approach to education recognizes this need, while better supporting the educational and learning needs of all children. The choice is clear. It is time to change our centuries-old schedule.

Carolyn M. Shields is the dean of the College of Education at Wayne State University in Detroit.

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