A Minute With...

education expert Carolyn Shields

6/7/2010  8:00 am

As the school year winds down, Carolyn Shields, a professor of education at Illinois, talks about the one topic guaranteed to send a shiver up the spine of any elementary or high school student: the prospect of year-round schooling. She was interviewed by News Bureau Education editor Phil Ciciora.

Getting summers off seems somewhat anachronistic now that the vast majority of school-age children don’t work on farms. Should U.S. schools move to a year-round schedule?

image of professor carolyn shieldsActually, we have a mistaken notion that our current school calendar was originally developed to accommodate farm work.
In fact, it’s actually a compromise from the late 1800s, when children in rural schools attended school for six months and urban schools were open all year, although children didn’t necessarily attend all 12 months of the year. To achieve a common curriculum, Horace Mann, an education reformer who was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, negotiated the nine-month compromise.
Given the ways in which society has changed in the last 150 years, perhaps it’s time for Mann’s compromise to be updated. I’m not convinced that every school should necessarily move to a year-round schedule, although research shows there may be substantial benefits – especially where there is considerable ethnic and economic diversity. 

What’s the difference between year-round schooling, modified block scheduling or balanced calendars? Are all three terms essentially the same, or are there some crucial differences?

Year-round schooling has many forms, although it doesn’t necessarily mean that children would attend school every day of the year. It’s a way of redistributing the days in a school year to reduce the long summer vacation period and ensure a greater “balance” between in- and out-of-school periods. Block scheduling can be introduced either within a balanced or traditional calendar school. 

What are the benefits of year-round schooling?

Some of the primary benefits of the more balanced or “year-round” calendar include less burnout for students and teachers, better attendance, reduced tension and hence fewer suspensions and disciplinary incidents, and the potential for improved instruction.
More than 95 percent of the teachers in my studies preferred a year-round schedule, telling me repeatedly that it prompted more focused and creative learning, as they identified key ideas and activities that could coincide with the schedule rather than simply teaching by turning the pages in a textbook.

Would year-round schooling help improve the U.S. ranking in math and science standardized tests? Would students retain more without summer break?

Perhaps most important for social justice is the lessening of summer learning loss, and hence, less review time and more actual learning time for all children. I’m not sure it’s a matter of rankings, but it could well decrease our internal disparities.
There is a considerable body of research that demonstrates that children from advantaged families acquire 12 months of knowledge during the regular school year and that, during the summer as they travel with their families, or enroll in enrichment activities, they gain another three months for a total growth of between 14 and 16 months of learning per year.
We also know that in general teachers do a good job and that children from less advantaged families are also very capable and generally acquire between 11 and 12 months of knowledge. But, as a result of less fortunate circumstances during the summer, their families don’t travel and the children are left pretty much on their own, with a resultant three to four months’ loss in what they have learned. This results in an ever-widening gap between richer and poorer children and contributes to what is generally known as the “achievement gap” in this country.
Reducing the length of the summer vacation is one option. Adding additional teaching time for those most in need of support during what is known as “intersession” periods is another benefit of the year-round calendar.
In states such as Florida or Arizona, where I have conducted research, teachers told me they used the intersession periods to provide additional background knowledge or even English language vocabulary instruction so students understand upcoming lessons, and the results were that test scores soared the next year. It certainly seems better to provide students the support they need up front than to have them attend summer school to redo something after they have “failed.”

Year-round schooling has been attempted in the past in the U.S. with little success. Critics say it’s disruptive to family life, provides little or no academic benefit, leads to teacher burnout and saves schools little or no money – and can even cost much more, which given the current crisis in funding for education, isn’t exactly good news. Is there a happy medium between the current schedule and the year-round curriculum?

I’m not sure it’s fair to say there has been little success. There are still more than 2 million children annually being educated in some form of balanced-calendar school. And, as I’ve said before, teachers report much less burn-out, not more.
Simply changing the calendar does not necessarily cost additional money. Adding intersession instruction often simply uses the same resources put into summer sessions, but of course, depending on the programs there might be additional instructional costs.
To attempt to make America’s schools more competitive, some advocate adding all-day kindergarten for all children or extending the school year and number of instructional days. These are expensive options. I do believe we can accomplish the same goal by supporting students who most need it, and that year-round schooling or balanced calendars offer one viable option for increased equity and student learning in this era of competition, accountability and fiscal restraint. I would definitely advocate considering year-round schooling in any school or district where achievement gaps need to be addressed.

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