In theory, replacing the nine-month school schedule with one that alternates shorter instruction periods with shorter breaks across all four seasons makes sense for all the reasons supporters give, beginning with a bump in student achievement.
If summer vacation is shortened to three weeks, kids are less apt to lose academic ground, goes the argument. That children learn more effectively in shorter spurts is a selling point. So is the notion that those most at risk for summer learning loss — special needs and disadvantaged students — benefit the most from the year-round model.
As proponents like to point out, the nine-month school year is a relic of the farm and factory economy of the 19th century, a far cry from the way most of us live now. Since the 1990s, buoyed by the promise of academic success, thousands of schools have experimented with the year-round calendar — enough to demonstrate a paucity of the hoped-for results.
The initial prospect of higher scores and greater retention has given way to less salient realities. Kids learn the same amount in 12 months as they do in nine. The National Academy of Education estimates that every 10 percent increase in class time nets a learning increase of just 2 percent. And contrary to early research suggesting modest improvement in test scores, recent findings indicate that on average, year-round calendars have produced no such thing. Even benefits to at-risk students are smaller than hoped, and as likely to be negative as positive.
Antiquated or not, the agrarian calendar is deeply ingrained in the American way of life. Seasonal jobs, family vacations, and sleep-away camp are the stuff of which summers are made. For working parents who rely on childcare, and those facing the prospect of sending their children to different schools at different times, the year-round calendar is a tough sell at best, especially given new evidence that extending the school day may be an easier path to academic achievement.
Last week, Norwalk Superintendent of Schools Steven Adamowski unveiled a pilot program for Kendall Elementary School that would combine year-round classes with an added hour of school each day and an added five days each year. The three-year experiment, beginning in 2020-21, would exceed by 13 the 300 hours of extended learning time championed by some educators as a likelier path to success.
The goal is to transform Kendall, a historically low-performing school, into a top performer at a cost of between $3.6 million and $5 million. Adamowski said outside funders would pick up at least half of the tab.
Like the research on the academic impact of longer school days, parents’ reactions have been mixed. A National Federation of Teachers’ survey of Kendall teachers indicated 82 percent would consider leaving the school if the model were enacted.
Extended learning, in and of itself, is no panacea. The burden of proof is on the district to persuade parents and teachers that the potential gains justify the upheaval.