Closing the Gap
October 18th, 2012

Ice cream trucks, bikes, Slip ‘n Slides.  Swimming pools, snack bars, and Girl Scout camps.  Backyard explorations and family vacations.  As a kid, my summers were filled with all the things that many Americans wax nostalgic about when we talk about being out of school for three months each year.  But all of a sudden I may find myself a proponent of banishing the tradition of summer vacation.

It all started here, with Dylan Matthews’ post on Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog about French President François Hollande’s proposal to eliminate homework.  Matthews measures out the value of instructional time versus homework and the conclusions are not that compelling.  However, in the final paragraphs of the post Matthews asserts that for real improvement in academic performance we should eliminate summer vacation.  And from there my curiosity was piqued.

I posted a question to my Facebook friends and Twitter followers (@Gale_TDT):

“What if school became a year-round affair?”

The responses were quick to roll in and quite varied in opinion.

Interestingly, the two teachers who weighed in were against it.  One made the argument that under a calendar with smaller breaks peppered throughout the year teachers would constantly be in ramp-up mode, and unable to maintain traction on content and curriculum with students they don’t see every school day.  Others who spoke out against abolishing summer vacation did so for personal reasons – fond memories of their own childhood summers, or extra time for their kids to participate in other educational formats, such as art and music camps, traditional summer sleep-away camps, or merely for more time with a stay-at-home parent.

Most of the parents (working parents in particular) were all for it.  And I can see their point.  From a purely logistical perspective having kids home full time for 12 weeks places incredible childcare demands on two-working-parent families.  One working mom also made the point that much of the summer is so hot that kids end up having to spend most of the afternoon inside anyway, and that vacation days in the spring and fall would be more enjoyable.

As each respondant explained his or her position I was surprised at how substantiable most of their opinions were.  Each person had a reason, and usually a fair one, for their vote for or against year-round school.  However, the one thing that all the answers had in common was that they were very local, even micro, in their perspective.  Each person responded with a thumbs up or down based on how year-round school would affect them personally.  I think, though, that if we’re going to answer this question in any compelling way, we have to look at a broader range of stakeholders.

Let’s talk for a minute about the achievement gap.  If you’ve watched “The Race to Nowhere” or any of the other recent documentaries on the state of our public education system then you’re well aware that some schools produce kids who are equipped to perform well on standardized tests and thereby improve quality of their future educational and professional opportunities.  Others do not.  Not surprisingly kids who find themselves at the top of the achievement gap typically hail from well-funded suburban school districts and have parents who are heavily involved in homework, science projects, and the like.  Those at the other end of the gap live in under-funded districts and have parents who are not involved in their academic lives.  Also not surprisingly, the boundaries of this gap fall clearly along socio-economic and racial lines.

The obvious answer here is, “Well, close the gap.”  But the trouble is much bigger than the gap, as this piece from National Affairs points out.  Amidst other poignant observations made in the article, author Frederick Hess notes that,

The truth is that achievement-gap mania has led to education policy that has shortchanged many children. It has narrowed the scope of schooling. It has hollowed out public support for school reform. It has stifled educational innovation. It has distorted the way we approach educational choice, accountability, and reform.

When we factor No Child Left Behind into the equation, the narrowing and hollowing only continue, as Hess explains:

Because of the way “achievement gaps” are measured — using scores on standardized reading and math tests — any effort to “close the achievement gap” must necessarily focus on instruction in reading and math. Hence many schools, particularly those at risk of getting failing grades under NCLB, have fixated on reading and math exclusively; other subjects — art and music, foreign language, history, even science — have been set aside to make more time and resources available for remedial instruction. … All of this has eroded traditional notions of what constitutes a complete education.”

The reason I bring this up is that educators across the board note that the education gap is the greatest at the beginning of the school year, when privileged kids have lost little academic ground due to various camps and weekly outings to the library, etc., and when underprivileged kids have been left to their own devices, watching television, and fending for themselves.  As one of my pro-summer vacation Facebook responders commented,

I think kids need a change of scenery, and some time to refresh. Also, camps can be really good learning experiences too. They can allow lids to develop specialized passions, whether it be going away to a music camp, sports camp or traditional camp. These are opportunities that just aren’t afforded to kids while they are in school. I think the real issue is, how do we provide enrichment opportunities that all can afford so there is no excuse for kids sitting idle over the summer?

I think she has a point, but I also think there’s a better way.  Why is it too much to ask that our educational system afford those kinds of opportunities?  Why is it too much to ask that kids be allowed – nay, encouraged! – to find their passions within the confines of a curriculum?  Why can’t we broaden that curriculum to help students find and foster those passions?  What kind of educational system evaluates only two subjects?  What kind of educational system isn’t creative enough to measure performance in a more meaningful way?

I think that year-round school could provide a big leg up to underprivileged kids, without depriving more advantaged kids of the enrichment opportunities they’ve come to love about summer.  If we do it right manyof those experiences could be worked into school, and would then be more universally available to all kids.  I’m not saying this will be easy.  I’m not saying it won’t be expensive.  But I am saying that the people being most significantly shortchanged by the current system are the kids.  We’ve created the wrong incentives.  And in a generation or two we’re all going to pay the price.

6 Responses to “Closing the Gap”

  1. Anna Says:

    Gale! This is so timely!
    The front page headline of our local paper this morning is discussing that the public school system is going to start researching the concept of year round school for all students. This comes as they have seen continual drops in reading scores, despite many actions taken.
    I fully agree with the point made that enrichment opportunities need to be available for ALL kids, not just those with parents that can afford it. We are seeing what allowing a system of the haves versus the have nots can lead to, and it’s not pretty.

  2. anne Says:

    Yikes…a very complex issue, obviously. Did you know in France they might be adding a school day? (they used to be off on thursdays). anyway, one other article I recently read said that school field trips are on the constant decrease due to budget issues. This is SO SAD to me. A further addition to the achievement gap, because it means privileged kids may still get to do interesting extracurricular things, while kids who get the bulk of those experiences in the school setting are getting fewer and fewer of those opportunities. I have no idea what this means for the year-round school thing. Just another tidbit I found discouraging in a recent article.

  3. Gale Says:

    Anna – I will be interested to see where TPS ends up on this topic. Please keep me posted!

    Anne – The Matthews article talks about the French school week. Hollande proposed eliminating homework in conjunction with adding a fifth day of school. Given the double variables proposed, people are unsure whether it would be a net gain or a net loss for the academic performance of the kids. As for field trips, etc, that really is a disappointing sacrifice. Art and music programs have also (notoriously) suffered. There is so much more to school than math and reading.

  4. Gale Says:

    One other component of this conversation that I forced myself to omit from my post (due to length) is a point I’ve taken from Madeline Levine’s new book, “Teach Your Children Well” which I’m currently reading and quite enjoying. In her discussion of facilitating “authentic success” in our children we need to understand the difference between learning for mastery and learning for grades. When kids learn something merely for the purpose of scoring well on a test, not only to they find the educational experience unpleasant, but they don’t retain the content as well. So in all of our “racing to the top” we have created incentives that won’t actually carry our kids to the finish line.

    Further, Levine writes extensively about how there is so much learning that happens beyond the classroom when kids are allowed to navigate new environments without the facilitation of a teacher. The fact remains, though, that many kids live in environments where it isn’t safe for them to roam about unsupervised after school. And so they end up hunkered down in their homes, oftentimes in front of one screen or another. Given this, I believe that we have to find ways to incorporate that kind of learning into the educational curriculum, which means that we have to set aside some school time for unstructured learning, free time, exploration of passions, and so on. And it is my thought that lengthening the school year would provide the additional hours to allow for this freedom without compromising the quantity or quality of more structured teaching.

  5. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    Really interesting post, Gale, and one that has me thinking with both my mom hat and my former teacher hat on. While I certainly agree that any new policy would have to consider the global system, I’m not sure that one-size-fits-all solutions ever really work; if we changed the school year length, some kids would likely benefit and others would suffer.

    While year-round schooling might help lessen the achievement gap, I think it would be detrimental for kids genuinely interested in enrichment projects that they aren’t able to pursue in a traditional school setting. Like you, I’ve been very influenced by reading Madeline Levine’s book and while I see your point that many kids aren’t able to take advantage of unstructured free time at home, I’m not sure that keeping all kids in school year-round is the best way to fix that problem.

  6. Lori Says:

    This would be a fun one to discuss when we are all sitting around during the holidays!