Fact or Fiction? Debunking 5 Myths About Year-Round School
Taking an extended break from school during the long, hot months of summer has been an American tradition for generations. Across the United States, schools and communities plan around the summer break—which often lasts more than two months—with many parents and guardians saving their vacation days for special activities during the time that children won’t be in school. Meanwhile, within the education system, teachers and administrators often schedule trainings and professional development to take place during the break, with the goal of minimizing disruption while school is in session. Simply put, students and teachers alike look forward to having time to decompress and get ready for the next school year.
However, some schools have moved away from the traditional academic calendar in favor of year-round schooling, which has garnered strong support from educators and families who believe a consistent schedule has more educational benefits than a long summer vacation. Other advantages associated with a year-round schedule include potential solutions to overcrowding, childcare concerns for working parents, and the dreaded "summer slide."
On the other hand, some schools and communities feel that moving to a year-round schedule would be an unnecessary and disruptive change, with supporters of maintaining the 10-month school year noting that summer vacation has social and economic benefits for their communities. Other disadvantages include concerns about scheduling issues, as well as student and teacher burnout.
With so many different perspectives on the pros and cons of changing the academic calendar, myths and misinformation are bound to confuse the issue. Here, we debunk five common myths about year-round schooling.
MYTH 1: The traditional summer break began when America was a primarily agricultural society. In the summer, children were needed at home to help the family with farm work.
FACT: A look into our nation’s history shows that agriculture played a relatively small role in determining the current school calendar. According to Kenneth Gold, a historian at the College of Staten Island, “The whole idea of an agrarian calendar makes it sound like it was an unthinking decision, but the current school year was really a conscious creation.” Gold, the author of School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools, went on to explain that the tradition of a long summer break is the result of a compromise between rural and urban communities.
More specifically, students attending schools in agrarian communities often had breaks during the spring and fall—times when they were needed at home to help with planting and harvesting—and would therefore attend school during the winter and summer instead. In urban communities, schools were often open year-round, but attendance was not mandatory. For example, in 1842, New York City schools were open 248 days a year! In an era before air conditioning, the summer months were stifling in urban areas, which made this time of year the most logical to take a break from school.
According to Gold, when school reformers pushed for a standardized school calendar in the late 19th century, the 10-month schedule with a long summer break was created as a compromise to meet the needs of urban and rural areas.
MYTH 2: Students and teachers in year-round schools will burn out; they need the long summer break to go on vacation, rest, and recharge.
FACT: While year-round schooling eliminates the two-month summer break, students technically spend the same amount of time in class; schools that follow the traditional 10-month calendar are in session for 180 days, as are those on a year-round schedule. The difference with the latter is that these 180 days are spread out over 12 months instead of 10, with shorter, more frequent breaks between terms. According to the National Education Association’s spotlight on year-round education, the most popular breakdown for the year-round school schedule is the 45-15 plan that calls for a 15-day break after 45 school days (approximately nine school weeks). Other options include the 60-20 and 90-30 plans.
While the number of vacation days may remain about the same in a year-round schedule, some communities would be adversely affected by eliminating summer break. For example, popular vacation hotspots depend on the economic boost from vacationing families—not to mention the beaches, pools, and tourist stops that frequently employ high school and college students over the summer. When Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan issued an executive order in 2016 to start school after Labor Day, he also specified that the school year must end before June 15, citing the positive effects of summer break for small businesses, families, and the economy. Indeed, an economic impact study from Maryland’s Bureau of Revenue Estimates found that starting school after Labor Day could generate an extra $74.3 million.
MYTH 3: Year-round schooling will ease overcrowding in districts with large student populations that need to find effective ways to share classroom space.
FACT: Some schools do move to a year-round schedule based on a "multi-track system" in an effort to serve their growing populations. In short, the system assigns equal-sized groups of students and teachers to different academic-year schedules and rotates them through the school building at different points in the year. A brief on year-round schools from the Congressional Research Service gave this example: “If a school that could accommodate 750 students and had 1,000 students enrolled, it could divide the students into tracks or groups of 250 students (i.e., 4 tracks). The school could then have three tracks at school at any given time and one track on vacation or intersession.” However, using a multi-track system to ease overcrowding also means that the school building is virtually always open, leaving little time for scheduled maintenance or school-wide teacher training. It may also be difficult for schools to coordinate extracurriculars if a quarter of their population is out on break at any given time.
Not all year-round schools adopt the multi-track system; some operate on a balanced, single-track schedule, which allows all students and staff to attend school at the same time. Schools that follow this model won’t ease overcrowding, but they will enjoy the other benefits of year-round scheduling.
MYTH 4: Year-round schooling will make it easier for working parents to schedule daycare and after-school care.
FACT: Covering childcare over summer break is a struggle for many working parents. In July 2018, readers of The New York Times wrote in to explain how they solved “the summer problem,” with the majority spending thousands of dollars on summer camps and activities for their children. Others discussed alternating their vacation time with their spouse or relying on relatives to cover a few weeks of care, and a few expressed an interest in moving to a year-round schedule or shortening the length of summer break.
Although a year-round school schedule would solve the “summer problem,” arranging childcare for breaks throughout the year might also pose a problem for working parents. If some schools in a district switch to a year-round schedule while the rest continue on a traditional schedule, parents of multiple children may face additional challenges.
MYTH 5: All students will perform better academically in year-round schools.
FACT: Eliminating the dreaded “summer slump” is a big draw for many school districts considering year-round schooling. While some students have many opportunities for summer enrichment in their own communities, others do not—and these are the very students and communities that may benefit the most from year-round schooling. As a study of the lasting consequences of the summer learning gap from Johns Hopkins University noted, “Since it is low [socioeconomic-status] youth specifically whose out-of-school learning lags behind, this summer shortfall relative to better-off children contributes to the perpetuation of family advantage and disadvantage across generations.”
However, changing the school calendar is not a magic way to keep all students on track academically. As recent research on year-round schooling indicated, schools that were most effective in boosting student achievement were doing much more than simply changing the academic calendar. In the same way that traditional schools might offer STEM camp, sports training, or summer school in July and August, successful year-round schools used their breaks to offer remediation, enrichment, and non-academic opportunities year-round.
The bottom line
Year-round schooling offers a potential solution to many of the challenges faced by American public schools. With careful planning and implementation, it can offer a more balanced schedule for students and staff while also benefiting families and communities. However, since there are a variety of ways to structure a year-round school calendar, care should be taken to ensure that the new schedule truly meets the needs of everyone involved.
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