What If We Changed The School Year?

This past week I was on vacation in Canada and I was able to make contact with a recently retired teacher, which got me wondering and asking questions about the things that are different just across the border in Canadian schools.  Canada has higher math and reading scores than the United States on international assessments, so naturally I am intrigued.  There is still more to be discussed, but don’t worry, I have her email address and email addresses of other potential Canadian educators, so we’ll all be in touch, and I’ll talk about it in detail in a future post.

But being on vacation got me thinking…  This week I thought I’d keep things light and discuss a fun idea that gets tossed around every few years and quickly abandoned. What if we made changes to the typical school year?  Could it have a positive impact on student learning?

I am, in general, a fan of the 175 to 180 day school year (I know, it’s July,  which leaves me a bit biased).  Once upon a time I fell into the camp that advocated for a longer school year, and a longer school day.  This is no longer the case, as I have learned of other countries like Finland who send their children to school for far fewer hours each day, and not as many days out of the year, and blow us (and Canada) out of the water on the aforementioned international assessments in math and reading.   

So should we shorten the school year?  I’m not an advocate of that, either.  I think if there was any kind of proposal to make such a change to public schools in America there would be political outrage, mostly due to the inconvenience and expense of finding child care but also due to the fact that it would kind of look like we are giving today’s youth a break.  Not that today’s youth don’t deserve a break from the monotony of school, I believe they do, but if we were to shorten the school year, there would undoubtedly be outrage.  I know this to be true because if there was outrage when we merely tried to encourage schools in different states to adopt similar content standards, there would be outrage is we had the audacity to significantly mess with the number of days kids had to attend school.  I can only imagine headlines in the op-ed page: Current Generation Rewarded For Laziness, and Today’s Youth Don’t Have It As Hard As We Had It.  Undoubtedly, liberals would be blamed for trying to destroy America with this change.

So I’m not going to go there.  I’m not going to suggest making the school year longer or shorter, but rather, making it different.  I came up with this on my run this morning, so bear with me.  What if we took away three weeks of summer vacation and stuck them in the middle of the school year?

Wait!  Don’t go back to Pinterest just yet!  I can explain!  

I know better than to mess with people’s summer vacation, but hear me out.  There are many schools around the country that operate on a year-round basis, “tracking out” for weeks at a time rather than taking a full summer off.  I think that has its merits and in a lot of ways, opens opportunities one might not have when tied to the traditional school year. But still, it’s too drastic.  There would be no less political outrage over that plan if it were intended for all public schools.  But what about borrowing just a tiny bit from that?  Here’s what I’d like to consider for summer vacation.

Here in Maine, we finish the school year around June 15th, and return just before fall, on or near the first of September.  That gives students about ten consecutive weeks out of class.  This creates problems, which research supports, because ten weeks is a long time to be out of school and summer is typically full of wonderful distractions for children and families.  Students come back to school in the fall with less knowledge of math and reading than they had in June before school got out.

To address this, we send some kids to summer school, and beg/ bribe others to read lots of just-right books and practice math while they are poolside, or on that flight to Virginia Beach, or up to camp.  A school district I once worked in has even experimented with making summer school fun and more summer-camp-like to entice more students to participate.  I want to borrow from that idea too, but not in a way that adds school days to the school year for any student.

I think we should take three weeks right out of the middle of summer, say, mid-July to early August, and reschedule that vacation time elsewhere during the school year. But during those three weeks in July/August, school is different, more camp-like. This is not to say it would be all fun and games.  Instead, this summer session would be all about experiential learning.  Students plan logistics for outings, conduct elaborate STEM experiments and field expeditions with model airplanes, boats, biological ecosystems, sports, and weather.  There would be reading and math too, and even writing exercises, but all connected to their work in the field.  It would be better than summer school, similar to STEM camp, but for everybody, including teachers.

Oh, but there’s one issue to deal with right there.  Some teachers and parents might not like to give up that ten-week stretch, because summer is awesome and change is hard.  But… I don’t think this would be that hard.  We’d all still have three weeks in the beginning of the summer and three or four weeks at the end of summer to plan excursions and vacations.  And parents might like having a few weeks mid-summer without the responsibility and/or expense of 24-hour child care.  Plus, it would be like sending your kid to camp, except it is paid for as it is part of the regular school year. There could even be overnight components– camping trips and such.  It would require some outside-the-box thinking, but really, I suspect most devoted educators would enjoy that kind of challenge.

So what about those displaced three weeks of vacation, where do they go?  If it were up to me, I’d stick one week onto the front end of Thanksgiving break, to shorten that long stretch between the start of school and the holidays.  Then I’d tac another week onto the back end of February break, so that families can have more options for winter fun (and maybe we’d have fewer students missing five days of school in a row for that random trip to Disneyworld after vacation week; forgive me for revealing the secret that teachers really don’t like putting together those homework packets parents request that get brought back approximately 2.6 % of the time).  And finally, I’d add an additional week to the front end of April break, to lessen the stretch between February and April vacations, when cabin fever sets in here in Maine, fights materialize on the playground, everyone gets the flu, and teachers begin to use their personal days and hoarded sick days.  

There it is.  175 school days, ten weeks of vacation, but much less, if any at all, summer loss.

Of course, this would not make much of a difference if that outside-the-box thinking didn’t happen, and didn’t also bleed into the rest of the school year. I am of the opinion that learning needs to be fun and engaging.  And lastly, none of this could ever work without the flexibility to plan and experiment with those outside-the-box ideas, and without the faith that it will yield results if we simply allow the data we obsess over to inform our practice rather than drive it through a tunnel.  

That’s all I got on this fine July day.  What do you think?  Let me know.

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.