Finding a School Year Model that Works

We all know how the system is supposed to work.  You start your school year right after Labor Day.  You attend school Monday through Friday, usually from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., for the next 10 months or so, with breaks for Christmas and the spring and most of the major holidays.  You wrap up in early June, with students planning three months of fun and working parents looking for three months of childcare coverage.  Despite popular belief, many teachers use their summer months to take seasonal jobs to supplement their incomes.  Rinse and repeat.

Over time, folks have pushed back against the model.  We’ve had those who believe the school day should start later in the morning, particularly for secondary school students (the premise being their minds aren’t as sharp first thing in the morning and it would help better manage transportation issues).  We’ve had those who say the system is built on an agrarian notion that children needed to be home during the summer months to help work the fields and harvest the crops (a task few of our students are doing these days).  And we’ve even have those who believe that extended summer break is a detriment to student learning, offering too large a gap in instruction and forcing a new re-ramp up process each fall that sets many students behind in the learning process.
So from time to time, we hear the calls for year-round schooling, where the school year will be 12 months long (for today’s debate, let’s set aside the collective bargaining agreements virtually every teacher operates under and believe such a move to be possible).  Typically, the arguments against year-round schooling have little to do with the students or with instruction.  We fret over how to deal with child care (if managing summer break weren’t hard enough, now we need to manage a series of long breaks across the year?!), what it means for schools with no air conditioning, and what it means for transportation and food service costs.
We also talk about the need to innovate, the need to do something different to spur student learning and boost student achievement.  Is there learning skill and content loss as a result of a three-month vacation?  Yes, if parents aren’t keeping their kids reading and engaged during that summer break.  Could a year-round schedule provide students a true learning scaffolding that lets us build on knowledge acquisition without having to rebuild annually?  Yes, assuming we are providing the proper supports and professional development for the teachers we would be asking more of.  Is it even feasible?  We may soon know, thanks to the good educators over in Milwaukee.
About a week and a half ago, Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent William Andrekopoulos floated the idea of taking the entire district year round.  The idea has yet to be embraced, and a recent study of Milwaukee’s pilot efforts show mixed results.  But he is soldiering on.  (The most recent article can be found in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here).  I must admit, I’m not sure what to make of the research study.  To me, it doesn’t seem like they have enough year-on-year data to make any hard decision yet.  And the fact that many kids in the year-round classrooms didn’t realize the new school year started August 1, and didn’t roll in until September, raises all sort of issues.  But you have to give Andrekopoulos credit for trying to think outside the box.  He has his eye on the goal line, and isn’t letting recent criticism or current budget problems hold him back.  
But I would push the good superintendent even further.  MPS has never been afraid to try new things in the quest for student improvement.  Just look at their experiments with both vouchers and charter schools.  You will be offering year-round school in about 10 percent of your buildings this coming fall.  At best, this is still a pilot.  But you are piloting it under the notion that school year is still just 175 academic days.  Why not expand that?  If you are worried about student learning retention, why not push it to 200 academic days.  That’s less than a 15 percent increase in academic time.  WIll it boost student achievement scores 15 percent?  Maybe.  We don’t know what impact it will have, but one has to assume that additional classroom time, time that is focused on academic subjects, can only help student achievement on the state exam.
What about just extending the school day itself?  If we can’t boost the number of academic days, what about adding an extra hour of instruction to those 175 days we have?  Traditionally scheduled schools can add an extra class.  Block-scheduled schools can explore topics in further detail.  Again, we expand the amount of academic-focused time in the school year, it logically follows we will expand student achievement, no?
The timing of Milwaukee’s call for year-round schooling is an interesting one.  Just yesterday, USA Today reported that, in face of current budget realities, more and more schools are looking at shifting to four-day instructional weeks, shortening the school year, and such.  They cite an Arizona district looking to cancel Friday classes for the next two years to save a half-million dollars in HVAC and transportation costs.  A California district that is dropping block scheduling so it can save a million bucks in reduced teacher need.  And even a Kansas district that changed the end of the school year from May 22 to May 1 to reap a whopping $32,000 in annual savings.
Don’t get Eduflack wrong.  I recognize the grim realities the current budget crisis is having on our schools.  We are asking school districts to do more and more with less and less.  But at a time when our top educational concern should be boosting student achievement and equipping all students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in even the toughest of economic storms, is the answer really cutting back school days and reducing the amount of time students are spending in a structured learning environment?  For struggling students or those in poor communities, is less instruction, reduced access to teachers and role models, and even fewer days with a hot breakfast and lunch provided the path to closing the achievement gap and providing opportunity to all?  Hardly.  And let’s face it.  When we talk about scaling back the school day or cutting instructional time, it is low-income and minority kids that are hit first and hit hardest.  How in the world do we close the achievement gap while denying them classroom time?
In our current pursuit of innovation and our race to the top, it seems we should be looking for ways to do more with what we have, not to do less.  If we want our kids to achieve, to hold their own on international benchmarks, and just to be able to read and write a grade level, we need to expand learning opportunities, not shrink them.  We need to call for more mandatory learning time, not move courses and pathways into the optional category.  We need to expand the learning day, expand outside-of-school-time academic efforts, and restructure our efforts so we maximize resources and provide more to our students.
In business, tough economic times often lead to two paths of thinking.  The first is to hunker down, make deep cuts, do with the bare minimum, and hope we can ride out the worst of it.  That seems to be what so many of our schools are preparing to do today. The second path, the path that many an industry leader and innovator chooses to take, is to use these times of uncertainty and worry to expand.  To grow.  To make acquisitions.  To do different things.  To redefine oneself to new markets and new customers, taking advantage of uncertainty by
demonstrating your own strength, certainty, and ability.
We need to find more of the latter in our K-12 infrastructure.  The EdSec and his team are promising billions in resources to schools that seek to innovate and improve.  Let’s just hope those dollars are going to school districts that are pushing to do more and try new, and not to those that are hoping to hoard for the next rainy day or tough budget choice.    

351 thoughts on “Finding a School Year Model that Works

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