Too Much of a Good Thing: It’s Time to Take the Plunge? Why We Need to Extend the School Year into Summer

How would you like to see your child learn much more than ever before? How would you like to see all children have this same opportunity? Sound good? Then how do you feel about children in Grades K through 12 spending four weeks each summer in school?

For at least a generation, we have been debating how to raise the quality of education. More money. More equitable funding of schools. More computers. More graduation requirements. More choice. All these ideas have merit and are being tried. Yet policymakers have been reluctant to try the one idea that may make the most sense: more time in school.

Since the Reagan Administration’s landmark report, A Nation at Risk, sounded the alarm in 1983, schools have been under constant pressure to help all students learn more, premised on the notion that whatever we asked of students in the past will not be sufficient for them or the country in the future.

Schools have responded by requiring students to meet higher standards. However, most schools are asking them to meet these new standards in exactly the same amount of time they had to meet the standards of the past and in much the same way. That’s asking a lot. The more time students devote to learning, the more they learn. Research also indicates that how time is used is very important. We ought to stop denying these plain facts and find time for students to succeed.

The best time is during the summer. Not all summer, or even the heart of summer. Under this plan, the school year would run roughly from Aug. 15 to June 30. It would include about 200 days instead of the current norm of 180. Summer vacation would last six weeks instead of 10. Today, some 100 schools are following this schedule, including a dozen schools in the Edison Project. Edison is accumulating evidence that the idea works.

Having the entire summer off from school negatively affects learning. All students forget some of what they learned during the previous school year, which forces teachers to spend part of the next school year on review work. Economically disadvantaged students, whose learning is often not reinforced in their homes or in their communities, forget much more each summer. Research shows the economically disadvantaged suffer about two months of learning loss, vs. one month for better-off students. This phenomenon recurs summer after summer. Shorter summers could reduce this gap while raising the achievement of all students, including those at the top. This would be no mean feat.

So why don’t we make the change? According to a May 7-8, 1997, TIME/CNN telephone poll conducted by Yankelovich Partners, adults are nearly equally divided on the idea (50% oppose, 47% favor and 3% are not sure). Many probably feel it would burden kids, who need summertime to just be kids. Parents want time for family vacations and for older children to earn some income. But a six-week summer break is ample time for both. Moreover, parents may appreciate the extra four weeks of supervision of their kids that a longer school year provides.

But feelings might be different if schools were different. Often the demands on educators to cover more content, to give more drills on skills and to prime students for tests create conditions that are less than ideal for learning. Four more weeks would give educators the time they need to experiment with innovative ways to teach subjects. By providing the kinds of experiences that kids remember and most enjoy, school could be as much fun as summer – almost.

Change must also overcome the nation’s far-flung and highly fragmented education system, with nearly 15,000 school districts and countless interest groups weighing in on education policies. In the past, the system has lengthened the school year to meet more ambitious education goals: from 130 days in 1870 to 155 days in 1910, 170 days in 1930 and, finally, 180 days in 1950. The system could do so again.

Of course, a longer year would require at least a 10% increase in operating costs. But we have increased what we spend on education by much more than that over the past generation. And what do we have to show for it? Less than we might expect from an investment in more time and better use of that time.

Four weeks a year adds up to 52 weeks of extra education over a student’s K-through-12 career. That’s 1 1/3 years more learning by today’s school calendar: time for students to meet higher standards or even get a head start on college-not a bad way to spend a bit of summertime.