Learning Curve: A calendar imbalance

And like many parents in Cobb, I am not thrilled.

A longer summer suits our family better than the abbreviated one. I didn’t object because I figured the new calendar may benefit some families.

But it’s probably a mistake for Cobb or other systems to promote their new balanced calendar as a boost to academics.

The research isn’t decisive that spreading out the same number of days over more months makes a large or lasting difference in how much students learn.

Both those in favor of the balanced and traditional calendars can cite reputable research to bolster their arguments.

The pro year-round camp points to Karl Alexander of Johns Hopkins University, who found that disadvantaged children make no academic progress in the summer, a deficiency that he says reverberates throughout their schooling.

Alexander concluded that about two-thirds of the ninth-grade academic achievement gap between poor students and more advantaged peers can be explained by the differences in their summer experiences in elementary school, a period of loss that he calls the summer slide.

While low-income children begin school with lower achievement scores, Alexander found that they progress at about the same rate as their more affluent peers. But the summer break — when middle-class kids go to art camp, swim team and museum trips — widens the gap.

Alexander found that poor children don’t have many learning-rich environments in their lives outside of school; their parents lack the wherewithal or resources to turn summer into a learning laboratory. The longer low-income children are away from school, the more they fall behind, he said.

The parents who prefer the traditional calendar cite the work of Ohio State University sociologist Paul von Hippel. While von Hippel agreed that the learning of poor children slows down in the summer, he didn’t see any lasting benefit to those students from a year-round schedule.

Using national data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, von Hippel found year-round calendars are somewhat ineffective. Yes, children do learn more quickly during the summer, but they learn more slowly at other times of year, said von Hippel.

He found that over a 12-month period, the children in year-round programs learn no more than children following a traditional school calendar. His conclusion: Year-round calendars don’t counter the summer slide; they just redistribute it across the rest of the year.

The reason may be that the key is not when children sit in a class but what they do while in class.

Yet academic achievement has never been uppermost in any setting of school calendars. With its long summer break, the traditional calendar is an artifact of a time when children were needed to work the fields.

Nor are academics a major consideration in most of the tinkering today with the standard 180-day school year.

If academics were the priority, the school calendar would be longer, says Harris Cooper, a Duke University professor who leads the national research on year-round schools.

“I think our kids would be going to school for more days,” says Cooper. “And there would be flexibility in the length of the school day so that kids would be spending more time in school each day. But no matter how much time kids are in school, what you do with that time is the most critical aspect.”

So why switch to a balanced calendar if enhanced student performance isn’t a certain outcome?

My own system touted the change as a recruitment tool, saying teachers liked it better. While there’s no hard data on whether school calendars affect teacher retention, Cooper says teachers appear to prefer the more frequent and shorter breaks to the longer summer.

In the end, it’s the parents who often become the biggest fans of year-around and balanced calendars, says Cooper.

“If you look at parent satisfaction in districts where this has been in place for a while, the parents are quite satisfied,” he says. “For middle-class families where both parents work outside of the home, this is a better fit. Schools have always responded to broader economic and lifestyle issues. If we were constructing a school calendar from scratch, there would be no way that we would pick the one we have now.”

That many parents tout the opportunities provided in balanced calendars to take cheaper trips to Disney during the fall and spring breaks doesn’t bother Cooper.

“If somebody else argues that this calendar prevents them from taking a vacation in August,” he says, “somebody else can say that they prefer it because they can take cheaper vacations to Disney in October.”

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