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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Go Year-Round: A Push for True Summer School

Kids aren't helping plow the fields anymore, so why are we throwing away three months?
Milton Chen
Senior Fellow

Summer vacation is a powerful anachronism that dates back to agrarian days, when farm families needed young people home during the summer months to replace the three R's with the two P's -- plantin' and pickin'. Today, now that fewer family farms remain and agricultural mechanization is standard, students need to be harvesting knowledge year-round.

In the Internet age, information is more accessible, and learning should happen during and after the school day -- nights, weekends, and summers. As dreamy as a long summer break may be, unless a kid is flipping burgers six days a week, it's education downtime we can no longer afford. More than ten years ago, the U.S. Department of Education organized a panel with an unusual title: the National Education Commission on Time and Learning. The panel issued a report that began, "Learning in America is a prisoner of time. For the past 150 years, American public schools have held time constant and let learning vary. Some bright, hardworking students do reasonably well. Everyone else -- from the typical student to the dropout -- runs into trouble."

The problem, according to the commission, is not just the length of the school year but also the lockstep "gridding" of the school day. The report emphasized that American schools have been operating under the tyranny of time; the length of the typical school period (45-50 minutes), the school day (8 a.m. to 3 p.m. or so), and the school year (180 days) is remarkably rigid across the nation. Secondary school students, especially, are required to march in assemblyline fashion throughout the day, where bells still ring to signal the closing of books and the flooding of hallways. The unchanging schedule prevents students from working in depth on projects and venturing into the community to gather data or talk to local experts. Teachers are also isolated in their classrooms by this rigid schedule, so they miss out on opportunities to learn from other teachers and share ideas.

Teaching may be the only profession where members have so little control over how their time is spent. Other industrial nations recognize that more time can equal more learning: Countries like Germany and Japan have longer school days and years, lengthening the focus on core academic subjects. Some schools in the United States, however, have started instituting more innovative approaches to school schedules.

In the year-round program at Fairview Elementary School, in Modesto, California, for example (see "Power to the People,"), students benefit from an emphasis on civic literacy and responsibility in addition to a regular academic program with about the same number of school days as traditional schools. And for the 2004-05 school year, the Alice Carlson Applied Learning Center, in Fort Worth, Texas, scheduled four blocks of about nine weeks each and fall and spring intersession workshops, allowing its K-5 students time for hands-on arts, science, and computer projects or sports in addition to language arts and math enrichment. (For more information on year-round schools, visit the Web site of the National Association for Year-Round Education.)

As Ernest Hemingway once said, with typical brevity, "Time is all we have." It's about time schools change how they use it.

Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation.

Comments (33)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Nicole's picture
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Carrissa's picture
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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

i do think that we need it because it would give us change and we would get a vacation in every season.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

No School Year round!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Many schools are starting at the same time they traditionally have, but are letting out later and later each year. Many of our struggling students are not helped by a long summer vacation, and parents lament about having to find camps, activities, or baby-sitters for their children. If it is done correctly, a year-round calendar would only lengthen the actual days in school by about 20 days, but would allow for us to have breaks after each quarter were over. This would serve two purposes; 1) it would allow the teachers time to meet with parents where there would be less of a "rush" to meet, and 2) there could be a lot of good collaboration going on between the school, parents, and community-at-large as to how to assist our students best.

It's an idea whose day is coming, even if we do not like the idea. I welcome it with an open mind and would like to see how the data changes between the "traditional" and the year-round calendar systems.

Anonymous's picture
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T's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Year-round schools still have summer breaks. They're just not as long as the usual 2 months characteristically given. My friend teaches at a year round school and it sounds like a really beneficial program. I'm all for it!!! We can't keep teaching last year's skills the first couple weeks of school to make up for the "summer slump".

S Jenkins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

50 years ago, 30 years ago, kids went to school 180 days a year, same as now, and the USA was SMART.

Perhaps the factors making America not-so-smart has nothing to do with teaching and schools.....

Alex's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We don't need year round schooling because if people want to go to a school year round look at what they have to do more of which is pay more money for tution,schedules for students will be even longer, also the athletic department won't get the time for practice, and students, parents, and teacher WILL NOT get a summer vacation.

Art Carlson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a former school board member (Bozeman, MT), I'm absolutely opposed to year-round school. Everyone needs a break and, given the continuing decline in educational revenues, we're already asking teachers and other educational professionals to do too much with too little. Expanding that responsibility without corresponding funding increases is madness.

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