Academics, the Year-Round
Calendar, and the Color of the School Buses.
by Christopher Newland, Ph.D.
When Year-Round education was
proposed in the Auburn, Alabama school system Christopher Newland, a parent and
a Professor of Psychology at Auburn University, decided to review the research
available on the topic.
Our school administrators said that the
Year-Round calendar is better for students who are struggling in school. That
sounded plausible to me, and if there was evidence that it did help struggling
students, then I would have supported it. But after evaluating about 100
studies of Year-Round Education programs from around the country I found that
the evidence that it benefits
children is weak and
inconsistent; in some cases, the change in calendar appeared was detrimental.
Only one firm conclusion emerged from all the research: a
"year-round" calendar is an inert intervention, academically.
Where Year-Round education seemed to
benefit children there was always a more plausible explanation. For example,
some benefits occurred in systems that implemented "multi track"
year-round education to alleviate severe overcrowding. In this approach 1/4 of
the students would be on vacation in the Fall, 1/4 in the Winter, and so forth.
This staggering of calendars permits every seat in a school building to be used
all year, and the building's capacity is increased and class size can be
reduced by 25%. Even here, evidence for academic benefits is modest and likely
due to smaller class sizes rather than the year round calendar.
In many districts, the Year-Round
calendar was promoted as offering children the opportunity to receive extra
help or participate in special programs during the "intersessions"
(usually about three weeks) between year-round school terms. A three week
period is insufficient time, however, to ameliorate any child's academic
Moreover, intersession classes
are usually optional and in many school systems are not well attended even by
those students who might benefit. A
more important consideration is
that schools can implement these types of supplementary programs using the
traditional calendar by holding them after school or during the summer when
there is sufficient
time to do some effective
One of the most lavish claims made by
Pro-Year Round education groups is that a three month summer vacation leads to
learning loss. Well, this is a
complicated issue. The best way
to study this would be to give an exam on the last day of school in the Spring
and then again on the first day of school the following term. But none of
the studies I looked at did
this. Some only tested in the Fall; some did not have a control group, or would
compare one year-round school with one other school that only
resembled the Year-round school
on some indicators. In poorly designed studies such as these, if one group
scored badly on the test it is impossible to discern whether the children
forgot information over the summer, or whether they never learned it in the
first place. This is an insufficient basis on which to effect a highly divisive
and disruptive change in policy.
A larger problem is that one doesn't
forget everything at the same rate. Things like how to multiply, to conjugate a
verb or even how
to ride a bike are forgotten
very slowly. Some call this "procedural knowledge" or "knowing
Other types of knowledge are forgotten fairly quickly. This is especially true
with isolated facts like the capital of a far-away state, or the definition of
an obscure scientific term, sometimes called declarative knowledge of
This is an important distinction; to many it is crucial. An effective education
is not a collection of quickly forgotten, isolated facts but rather the
accumulation of a solid foundation of knowledge and a diverse array of analytic
and procedural skills that are not forgotten in a few short weeks.
declarative knowledge will need
to be reviewed at the appropriate time (not necessarily in the Fall), but
whether the summer break is four to six weeks as in many year-round calendars
or the traditional twelve weeks is of little consequence. The difference in the
amount of forgetting after four weeks or twelve is not significant, especially
when it is recognized that some of the information had been taught almost a
year earlier, in the previous Fall. In fact, one could argue that the
year-round calendar, with its multiple three-week breaks,
simply offers more
opportunities to forget.
From the evidence available it appeared
that, at far as academics is concerned, changing the calendar is about as
effective as changing the color of the school busses. Personally, with the lack
of any evidence supporting academic benefits for a year-round calendar,
I was against implementing this
type of school year because I want my children to have the opportunity to
benefit from other types of learning that are only possible during a long
summer break. These included attending summer camps (soccer and academic
camps), extended travel, attempting long term projects such as starting a
summer business, and working at local business concerns.
Athletics was an additional
one of my children is a swimmer
and many of the swimming tournaments are held during the Summer. Other concerns
within our community included the fact that
Auburn is a University town
where many of the parents have summers free and like to travel with their
Broader concerns arose as the issue was
discussed further. Parents were concerned about child-care. Many felt that it
would be more difficult to arrange for child care for four intersession breaks
than for one long summer. Parents who were divorced did not want to be faced
with further litigation to establish new, and in many cases very inconvenient,
Others were concerned about
marching band and other types of athletics such as Little League, which would
have been unavailable to children on a year-round calendar. The year-round
put our students on different
calendars than other
school systems that we played
in athletic events.
No single concern above
is, or should be, enough to
torpedo the proposal of year-round school. Instead, our community described
such a large collection of disruptions that the purported benefits of
had to be considered carefully.
The fact that there was no evidence for academic gains resulting from a
year-round calendar that might offset these disruptions was one of the deciding
factors that convinced most parents in our community that this was a bad idea.
Ultimately, after the School Board was
besieged by parents, they decided to drop the proposal. For me it came down to
this question: What problem would Year-Round education solve? And, after
reviewing the literature, I couldn't find one.
The above article was written by
Christopher Newland for the June, 2000 issue of
magazine. Due to space limitations, a list of four points were excerpted for