Will longer school year help or hurt US students?

Did your kids moan that winter break was way too short as you got them ready for the first day back in school? They might get their wish of more holiday time off under proposals catching on around the country to lengthen the school year.
Associated Press
Jan 15, 2013

But there's a catch: a much shorter summer vacation.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a chief proponent of the longer school year, says American students have fallen behind the world academically.

"Whether educators have more time to enrich instruction or students have more time to learn how to play an instrument and write computer code, adding meaningful in-school hours is a critical investment that better prepares children to be successful in the 21st century," he said in December when five states announced they would add at least 300 hours to the academic calendar in some schools beginning this year.

The three-year pilot project will affect about 20,000 students in 40 schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee.

Proponents argue that too much knowledge is lost while American kids wile away the summer months apart from their lessons. The National Summer Learning Association cites decades of research that shows students' test scores are higher in the same subjects at the beginning of the summer than at the end.

"The research is very clear about that," said Charles Ballinger, executive director emeritus of the National Association for Year-Round School in San Diego. "The only ones who don't lose are the upper 10 to 15 percent of the student body. Those tend to be gifted, college-bound, they're natural learners who will learn wherever they are."

Supporters also say a longer school year would give poor children more access to school-provided healthy meals.

Yet the movement has plenty of detractors — so many that Ballinger sometimes feels like the Grinch trying to steal Christmas.

"I had a parent at one meeting say, 'I want my child to lie on his back in the grass watching the clouds in the sky during the day and the moon and stars at night,'" Ballinger recalled. "I thought, 'Oh, my. Most kids do that for two, three, maybe four days, then say, 'What's next?''"

But opponents aren't simply dreamy romantics.

Besides the outdoor opportunities for pent up youngsters, they say families already are beholden to the school calendar for three seasons out of four. Summer breaks, they say, are needed to provide an academic respite for students' overwrought minds, and to provide time with family and the flexibility to travel and study favorite subjects in more depth. They note that advocates of year-round school cannot point to any evidence that it brings appreciable academic benefits.

"I do believe that if children have not mastered a subject that, within a week, personally, I see a slide in my own child," said Tina Bruno, executive director of the Coalition for a Traditional School Calendar. "That's where the idea of parental involvement and parental responsibility in education comes in, because our children cannot and should not be in school seven days a week, 365 days a year."

Bruno is part of a "Save Our Summers" alliance of parents, grandparents, educational professionals and some summer-time recreation providers fighting year-round school. Local chapters carry names such as Georgians Need Summers, Texans for a Traditional School Year and Save Alabama Summers.

Camps, hotel operators and other summer-specific industries raise red flags about the potential economic effect.

The debate has divided parents and educators.

School days shorter than work days and summer breaks that extend to as many as 12 weeks in some areas run up against increasing political pressure from working households — 30 percent of which are headed by women. These families must fill the gaps with afterschool programs, day care, babysitters and camps.

"Particularly where there are single parents or where both parents are working, they prefer to provide care for three weeks at a time rather than three months at a time," Ballinger said.

The National Center on Time & Learning has estimated that about 1,000 districts have adopted longer school days or years.

Some places that have tried the year-round calendar, including Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and parts of California, have returned to the traditional approach. Strapped budgets and parental dissatisfaction were among reasons.

School years are extended based on three basic models:

—stretching the traditional 180 days of school across the whole calendar year by lengthening spring and winter breaks and shortening the one in the summer.

—adding 20 to 30 actual days of instruction to the 180-day calendar.

—dividing students and staff into groups, typically four, and rotating three through at a time, with one on vacation, throughout the calendar year.

At the heart of the debate is nothing less than the ability of America's workforce to compete globally.

The U.S. remains in the top dozen or so countries in all tested subjects. But even where U.S. student scores have improved, many other nations have improved much faster, leaving American students far behind peers in Asia and Europe.

Still, data are far from clear that more hours behind a desk can help.

A Center for Public Education review found that students in India and China — countries Duncan has pointed to as giving children more classroom time than the U.S. — don't actually spend more time in school than American kids, when disparate data are converted to apples-to-apples comparisons.

The center, an initiative of the National School Boards Association, found 42 U.S. states require more than 800 instructional hours a year for their youngest students, and that's more than India does.

Opponents of extended school point out that states such as Minnesota and Massachusetts steadily shine on standardized achievement tests while preserving their summer break with a post-Labor Day school start.

"It makes sense that more time is going to equate to more learning, but then you have to equate that to more professional development for teachers — will that get more bang for the buck?" said Patte Barth, the center's director. "I look at it, and teachers and instruction are still the most important factor more so than time."

The center's study also found that some nations that outperform the U.S. academically, such as Finland, require less school.

Many schools are experimenting with the less controversial, less costly interim step of lengthening the school day instead of adding days to the school year.

Chicago's public schools extended the school day from 5 hours and 45 minutes to 7 hours last year after a heated offensive by unionized teachers and some parents. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff to Duncan's boss, President Barack Obama, initially pushed an even longer school day — a major sticking point in this year's seven-day teachers' strike. He and other proponents argued that having the shortest school day among the nation's 50 largest districts and one of the shortest school years had put Chicago's children at a competitive disadvantage.

Wendy Katten, executive director of Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education, said opponents held back a push for a 7.5-hour school day, and got an extra staff person assigned to each school to handle the additional hour and 15 minutes of school time.

In San Diego, year-round school has been a reality since the 1970s.

District spokesman Jack Brandais said the concept was initially intended to relieve crowding, not improve performance test scores. The student body and staff were divided into four groups, with three attending school at any given time.

Through decades of fine-tuning, Brandais said the district now runs both traditional and year-round tracks simultaneously.

A 2007 study by Ohio State University sociologist Paul von Hippel found virtually no difference in the academic gains of students who followed a traditional nine-month school calendar and those educated the same number of days spread across the entire year.

Amid budget cuts and teacher layoffs, San Diego has cut five instructional days from both year-round and traditional schedules since last year.



Phil Packer

School should be so enjoyable that kids beg to go when they are sick.

Phil Packer

...the American workforce to compete globally? How can you compete with someone who makes a dollar an hour with no benefits?


We need to teach these students to think for themselves, that's what a longer school day should acheive. If they aren't getting more education, then it's a waste of time. Once they think for themselves then we might not have such a big market for dollar a day products. They won't buy them. Good luck to the teachers getting them out of the sheeple mentality.


If nothing changes in the curriculum, what is the point in extending the school year, except child care? First figure out what's lacking, then figure out if you need more time to teach it. Just adding hours is silly. Problems in some districts are totally different than problems in another. In some districts, long breaks are not a good thing but in others they are. Kids work, volunteer, and participate in sports in the summer. That should not be taken away in all districts.


It's about "quality," not "quantity."

When something isn't working, most bureaucrats' idea of success is to do more of it.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. However, you can make him thirsty.

So how DO you make him thirsty? Therein lies the key.




@ meowmix:

"Close" grasshopper. The answer is: Salt.

This is only an metaphor to the hard mental work associated with THINKING past the mindlessness of liberal Big Education.

Licorice Schtick

So...you prefer what? Small education? You're part right, though - free public education is a liberal idea, and pretty good one.


@ Contango,

Describe "the mindlessness of liberal Big Education."
Is there a mindless conservative Big Education ?


@ 4shizzle:

Liberal Big Education of the bureaucracy, by the bureaucracy and for the bureaucracy shall not perish from this Earth barring of course a fiscal collapse.

For one, see IL:



@ con

So, mindless liberal Big Education. should teach about pensions?
( Save your energy..don't reply.)


Although I have to say, Chicago's 5 hours and 45 minute day does seem short. But further down in the article, it says they got an extra staff person to handle the additional time (now 7 hours). Is that additional time teaching or just babysitting? LOTS of problems in that district.


Re: "How can you compete with someone who makes a dollar an hour with no benefits?"

A lot of "those workers" are being replaced by robots.

Between cheap imported goods and the increased use of robots, we will not have enough jobs for the people that a willing to work, let alone the ones that are just plain lazy.

Years ago education was the answer for all with ambition; those days are fast coming to a halt.......


I think the point about that is you CAN'T compete with people willing to work for so little. We need an educated work force because the jobs are desigining the robots, not assembling them. Education is absolutely the answer.


@ Kimo:

Not enough jobs? Read "Player Piano" by Kurt Vonnegut.

One key: Get an education in those jobs that can’t be outsourced like the trades.

There will always be a need for people to repair things. And many of those positions are currently goin' unfilled.

I read several yrs. ago that there was a need for approx. 50K welders in the U.S. Some welds are too complex to be done by robots.

Not to worry, someday China will have a consumer class, their economy will mature and their economic need to rely heavily on exports will decline.

The U.S. will no longer be able to offshore it’s monetary inflation – look out!



100% correct, Contago. And a longer school day is not what we need to be looking at.


IMO, kinda like an actor: There are are no small parts, only small actors.

Be the best you can be.

Read: "Up From Slavery" by Booker T. Washington.

Do you want equality? You earn it by being the BEST in your profession. Then people will seek you out and it won't matter what your skin color is.

Unfortunately, W.E.B. Du Bois won the political argument and here we are today.

I'm also an admirer of and have read the autobio. of George Johnson.


BW1's picture

There will be jobs for those who differentiate themselves as offering more value, primarily with MEANINGFUL education, as opposed to made-up degree programs in political axe-grinding.


I am in agreement with Contago.

The technology and communication markets are booming. Their are never enough engineers.
The trades like a plumber and electrician will be understaffed when the baby boomers start to retire. Good paying jobs are and will be available for those graduating from college or a trade school.

Choosing your career path is very important.


All true.

There will never be enough engineers because their bean-counting bosses won't pay them what they're worth, because they have no idea what they're worth, because they can't tell a good one from a bad one, so they treat them as commodities of a lower caste.

Part of Steve Job's genius was to get the best talent by paying a little more, and he could do so because he could tell the difference.

BW1's picture

You sound like you're not an engineer, because you'd otherwise know that's not reflective of reality. Pay is governed by the law of supply and demand, just like all other prices.


Um, sounds like you're neither an engineer nor an economist. A strong market presupposes good information, and when that fails, you get market failure, an inescapable part of market theory. There are endless examples of market failures, especially in the short run. That's why Statements about free markets so often include "in the long run."

BW1's picture

I am an engineer, and no one in my graduating class has ever had a problem getting paid well. Supply and demand has nothing to do with good information. If there is more demand than there are engineers, the price will go up. I've watched it happen many times in my career, and used it quite well for personal gain.

Now, of course, the mix of which type of engineers is in demand has changed many times, so that's a factor, and if one chooses one of the made-up pseudo-engineering majors of the last decade or so, like environmental engineering, focused on political reasons WHY to project is needed instead of on the technology that drives HOW it will be achieved, then they'll find demand much lower than for the larger encompassing category.


Nearly all welds in a factory are done by robots.

Yesterday's statistics are just that..........

Take a tour of any large shipping facility, almost all the work is done by robots.

The only thing that now requires a human is stuffing the box.

There is a big new world out there that can't be seen by sitting at a computer posting links.......


@ Kimo:

See Caterpillar and other mfgers of large industrial equipt.



The boomers are gettin' old, they need replacements.


Nearly all REPETITIVE welds are done by automation. Custom welding is not.

It is too hard to set up the machines if the product changes every day. Also, there are some places that are hard for the machines to reach. That work is still done by hand.

What someone has to do is evolve if they want a good paying job. Instead of fighting automation, learn how to design it, install it, implement it, or maintain it. That includes programming.

Millwrights, plumbers, and electricians are in high demand that can handle the installation. Tool & Die makers are needed to fabricate the custom jigs the machines need.


The problem lies in method and delivery. By and large, schools tend to employ a teaching style firmly rooted in the 20th century- which would be fine if our economy was based in the manufacturing sector. We do very little to keep lessons relevent/powerful/meaningful for students which is what optimizes student learning.

BW1's picture

We shouldn't have to. Not everything in life is pleasing, and the sooner kids learn that reality, and learn to adapt within it, the better they will do. In any given classroom, with a given level of relevancy/power/meaning, there are students who learn and those who do not. The difference is that those who learn do not share your expectation for edu-tainment.

The Hero Zone's picture
The Hero Zone

I agree with you, Rabbi!

While there should be basic standards of WHAT should be learned, it is very important in today's information-soaked age to focus on HOW to learn. Anyone can get nearly any piece of knowledge near-instantaneously (be it fact, opinion, or the vague blend of both we see often in many online venues). But, the trick is in how to be thoughtful and discerning about it. How does a student recognize credible sources or get a hint at what to look for in an article? Which questions to ask to get the answers they need? Yes, you may have a calculator in your pocket, on your watch, as a phone app, and computer function but what kind of math problem is this so you can get help solving it from your lesson, teacher, friend, or even the methodology to input it correctly into a machine?

Being able to ask these questions does much to do what you stated, regarding optimal learning and making lessons relevant.