Year-round schools not way to go

September 19, 2000|By Billiee Bussard

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Delve into the history behind year-round school, and the fallacy of using a horse and buggy-day calendar in the new millennium becomes clear.

The hundreds of sadder but wiser communities that tried and abandoned calendar experiments over the last century should be a lesson for any community. They learned the hard way that a year-round calendar delivers neither the academic nor economic benefits promised by its promoters.

The century-long failure of year-round schools is strangely ignored by both its promoters and some researchers. Proponents of the year-round calendar ignore the importance of educational experiences that occur outside school walls, particularly the valuable contributions family members make in a child's growth and development.

In the early 1900s, the year-round calendar was introduced to provide a means of supervision for young children while their parents and older siblings worked long hours in factories. Changing the school calendar was no more an answer to social problems and work force child-care needs in those times than now.

School overcrowding was the issue that gave the year-round school a foothold three decades ago. It is interesting that California, which has a dismal school achievement record, has the greatest majority of the nation's year-round schools. School districts there have little choice. State legislation obligates districts to use the calendar in order to get new school construction funds.

It is also that the much-publicized Valley View School District in Illinois, the first in the nation to go district-wide with a year-round calendar in 1969, dumped the calendar as soon as new school construction funds were available. In those states where there is no funding incentive to continue on a year-round calendar, most of these experiments were abandoned.

Predictions about the benefits of a school calendar change are far different from the realities.

School calendar changes only complicate life for today's families.

A long summer vacation leaves open the window of opportunity for family time together. A year-round calendar narrows it.

A long summer vacation reduces the complications of finding adequate child care. A year-round calendar creates thousands of latchkey children because it is often hard to find child care for the year-round calendar's frequent, three-week breaks. The calendar also creates legal and visitation nightmares for millions of parents who are divorced.

A long summer vacation provides the critical time and opportunities for the real work experiences for the nation's youth, and the financial means to make a college education a reality for large numbers of the children from families of modest means. These summer jobs are the building blocks for a work ethic that is a critical component of this nation's strong economy.

A long summer vacation also provides opportunities for teachers to earn advanced degrees or to just refuel and prepare for another year in one of the most demanding and important jobs in our society.

Many psychologists have studied and written on calendar changes but none with a more devoted and personal look than psychologist, and parent, Christopher Newland, a professor at Auburn University.

"Evidence in favor of academic benefits of year-round calendar is not there," Mr. Newland told the Auburn City School District in 1998.

He challenged those who found a message advocating year-round school in Harris Cooper's much-cited federally funded review of studies on summer vacation and test scores. Mr. Newland makes special note of Mr. Cooper's own findings on summer learning loss, an argument used in support of a year calendar: "Some children return in the fall knowing less. For most, however, the loss is pretty close to zero."

Auburn City Schools decided to keep the traditional calendar.

The chorus of voices opposed to school calendar changes is much more diverse than middle-class suburbanites, Ocean City restaurateurs and teachers who fear burnout.

The year-round calendar was neither the economic nor academic answer to school and social problems at the last turn-of-the-century nor does it address school and social problems for the new millennium.

Billee Bussard is a co-author of "Year-Round Education: Lessons Learned the Hard Way." which evolved from seven years of research as an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

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