Closing the Gap
Mounds View High School
Arden Hills, MN
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks well behind high-performing countries in K-12 academic performance. As of 2012, the United States was ranked 27th in math and 17th in reading (United States). To improve student outcomes, the United States should adopt a 12-month academic year, eliminating the 12-week summer break and replacing it with more frequent, shorter breaks throughout the year. Students and teachers would have the same number of school days as the current system. This schedule would be cost-neutral and result in improved student outcomes, particularly reduced summer learning loss and higher educational attainment for at-risk students.
The majority of K-12 school systems in the United States currently follow the same schedule that was popularized in the late 1800s. This schedule consists of approximately 180 days of school scheduled over nine months, from the beginning of September to the end of May. The three-month summer break was established when agrarian life was prominent (DeNisco). “Children were in school, but not when they were needed for the work-intensive summer harvest. The nine-month school year accommodated the need” (Gilbert). Today, only three percent of Americans’ lives are based on the agricultural cycle (Cooper, et al). Because the United States is no longer a predominantly agrarian economy, it no longer makes economic sense to operate by this schedule.
For most American K-12 students, the summer break is a chance to unplug. Unfortunately, unplugging results in a loss of much of the material learned during the school year. Regardless of the resources at home, studies have shown that most students lose an average of one month of math skills over the summer (Cooper, et al). Even worse, the loss of reading and comprehension skills is greater for students from lower income families. These disadvantaged students can lose up to three months of reading skills over the summer (Granderson). Many disadvantaged students make similar academic gains as advantaged students during the school year, but the gap widens in the summer as they face greater loss of material (Huebner). In one study comparing students from high and low socioeconomic status (SES) groups in Baltimore, researchers tested students in the spring and fall each year, starting in first grade and following the students through ninth grade. The researchers found that high SES students improved test scores from spring to fall, whereas low SES students scored more poorly in the fall (Alexander et al). This difference in what students lose is caused by unequal summer opportunities. Students without the same enrichment opportunities as advantaged students do not receive the additional learning provided by camps, organized sports, and travel (Donohue, et al). The Baltimore study researchers concluded, “A large portion of the achievement gap originates over the summer, when children are not in school. The resource disparity children from lower-income families experience fuels this achievement gap growth” (Alexander et al). Without costly interventions to get them back on track, disadvantaged students lose ground and never catch up. By adopting a schedule that eliminates an extended summer break and intersperses short breaks during the year, all students would be less likely to suffer from learning loss, and disadvantaged students would be less likely to start out behind each school year.
The loss of material over the summer is so great that American K-12 teachers typically use the first month of each school year to re-teach what was lost (Granderson). The opportunity cost of the time teachers spend re-teaching is the foregone ability to teach new or deeper study of content. With a year-round school calendar, teachers would spend less time re-teaching, and they would be able to teach material they would not have otherwise had time to present (Granderson). Not only would this improve teacher productivity, it would also improve student outcomes as they would have the benefit of deeper exposure to subjects.
Moreover, by implementing a full-year school calendar, students who are at risk for dropping out may be more motivated to stay in school and graduate. With a schedule of short, frequent breaks, students are less likely to burn out and be discouraged. In addition, studies have shown that more frequent, spaced out breaks decrease the amount of student and staff absences (Weaver). Fewer absences would likely result in better student outcomes and cost savings through reduced need to cover teacher absences.
While there are a number of advocates for adoption of a year round K-12 school year, there are also critics. One economic concern is the cost of staff salaries. Some critics note that if schools are open for 12 months, teachers and staff would need to be paid 12 month salaries (Cooper et al). However, teachers would be teaching for the same amount of days, so their overall salaries would not necessarily change. Another concern is from students who need income of their own. A long summer vacation provides an opportunity for students to earn money that can be put toward their future college education or living expenses. Advocates for 12-month school calendars say that employers could adopt job-sharing arrangements, where students would work during their school break and return at their next break (Cooper et al). It may take more creative scheduling and flexibility, but there are ways for students to earn income with a 12-month school calendar.
The American K-12 education system needs to better prepare students to compete globally. The issues are complex and there is no one solution; however, the United States must take bold action to improve its education system. Adopting a year round calendar is a cost effective solution to improving student outcomes. It may not be the most popular change, but it offers strong potential for student improvement without increasing per student spending.