Thursday, August 14, 2014

Year-Round-Schools? Is anybody really interested in that any more?

Year-Round-Schools were popular back when the Beatles were all the rage. But you don’t hear about them much any more … year-round-schools, that is; you still hear about the Beatles a bit. People were looking for ways to cope with rapid population growth in the 1960s and 1970s. Baby Boomers were advancing through the education system and soon Baby Boomers' children were entering schools. The Boom is over, and population growth is coming from a different demographic sector – one that doesn’t get quite as much audience for complaints about crowded schools. So it was a surprise when a reporter for Education Week called to ask about Year-Round-Schools.
“Why has this topic come up now?”

“Well, both Virginia and Michigan have money in their 2014-2015 budgets that schools can apply for to try a year-round calendar.”

“Do you mean, going to school for the entire year, or just rearranging the 180 days differently.”

“Just rearranging the 180 days.”

“Hmm, that’s surprising ... I mean, that's curious”

Year-Round-Schooling (TRS) came about for a couple reasons. Taxpayers and their school board representatives looked at empty schools from June to September and they knew that the kids were no longer working in the fields so they questioned the poor use of resources. In areas where population was burgeoning and new schools needed to be built, those empty schools for 3 months started to look like an opportunity.

“If we just divided the kids into 4 tracks and staged each track on a 9-week-on and 3-week-off calendar, we would achieve a 25% increase in building use. Instead of building 4 new schools, we would only have to build 3.” Behold: YRS was born.

It all sounded wonderfully economical. But as soon as it starts in any town, problems arise.

The alternative calendars (the 4 tracks) are not equally desirable at the middle school and high school levels. You have the sports teams, and then you have the marching band that has to play during half-time at the football games; and so the athletes and the band have to be in the same track. So the 9-week-3-week track that has the 9-weeks from September to November gets to be a desirable track with all the cool kids in it. But when you have lots of kids wanting in the cool track and nobody wants in the uncool track (like 9-weeks of school from June to August) you have a real problem. You won’t save any space unless the tracks have about equal numbers of kids in them. So you can’t allow free choice of a track; so what you do is allow choice of tracks except that all new kids and transfers into the district are forced into the undesirable track. Now parents start to grumble.

Parental grumbling intensifies when families with more than one child discover that they can’t get all their children on the same track. There are big problems coordinating schedules across elementary, middle, and high schools for multi-child families. Try to plan your family vacation, for example, when one child is in grade 5 on a traditional calendar and the other child is in grade 8 on a YRS calendar.

But that’s not the half of it. When the schools start messing with the traditional 9-month—3-month calendar, they start messing with a host of summer activities that have grown up over the decades and accommodated to the traditional calendar: Boy & Girl Scouts, Boys Club, Girls Club, Cub Scouts, Little League, summer camps of a thousand different kinds – I could go on, but you can supply your own examples.

Eventually, you realize that changing the traditional school calendar is about as impossible as moving a cemetery. But the board and the taxpayers insist, so what happens? The superintendent, the principals, and the teachers are caught in the middle. They have to deal with the myriad complaints and complications. And what is their response? Well, the only thing they have left to argue is that the YRS calendar is a superior form of education! Kids learn more; that’s why we’re doing it. They don’t suffer the horrible learning loss over the three-months summer vacation. Well, doesn’t psychological research prove that distributed practice is better than massed practice? And all those poor children who have turned their brains completely off during the summer have to spend September and October relearning everything they have forgotten so that they can continue with the next stage of learning math or reading or social studies or whatever.

Of course, all this justification that the administrators and teachers are forced to put out is pure poppycock. The psychological research on massed vs distributed practice is on nonsense syllable learning and doesn’t generalize to learning things as complex and messy as school subjects. And furthermore, most of that research was done by college professors who hated that their students ignored their courses during the semester and then crammed for the final.

Also, the idea that school subjects are so tightly articulated across grades that forgetting something during the summer will paralyze you when you try to learn the next level of the subject in September is blatant nonsense. Does reading work that way? Of course not. And does anyone really believe that kids these days don’t read in the summer, or write? Ever hear of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or texting? And if it were true that subjects are so tightly sequenced that you can’t advance to Stage 5 unless you mastered Stage 4 (in social studies?), then we all would have stopped learning anything at about the 6th grade.

And what about the summer learning loss? It’s tiny and insignificant and the only ones pushing it are businesses trying to make a buck off of it by selling books or apps or tutoring services.

So what you have is school professionals caught in the middle between taxpayers trying to reduce costs and parents trying to run a household. What they invent are a bunch of myths and weak arguments hoping to convince parents to put up with the trouble and inconvenience. It seldom works for long. Most places that try YRS give up on it after a few years, say, when the population growth pressure lessens.

One of the few places I have seen YRS tolerated for long was in a super-wealthy suburb of Denver where the families loved taking 4 vacations a year: skiing in the winter, surfing in the summer, Europe in the spring, and New England in the fall.

If YRS is such a fantastic learning experience, why don’t we see it at Choate, Andover, Phillips, et al.?

180 days is 180 days. It doesn’t matter how they are spread out over the year. Now if you are talking REAL YRS, i.e., 365 days a year with weekends off, well, that’s a different matter. But, do you think the country is ready for a 33% increase in the cost of K-12 schooling? Shall we really up the budget from $500 billion to $666 billion?

Now, back to Virginia and Michigan. What’s up there? Why are they putting aside a little money in an attempt to induce a few school districts to try YRS? Sure, they’ll say that it is an experiment on increasing learning and avoiding that horrible gigantic loss of learning over the summer. But color me more suspicious than that.

Many (most?) school teachers have organized their lives so that they have plenty to do over the 3-month summer break. They take jobs at the rec center or the summer camp; they go back to school themselves and work on their Masters or doctorate; they travel with their families. Many will not be willing to give up these things to continue teaching during the summer. Who will step in and help with the teaching? Look for Teach For America to step up. Or better yet, let’s watch and see if the K12 Inc. and Connections/Pearson sales force shows up in Virginia and Michigan with the perfect staffing solution: online line courses!


  • Cooper, H., Nye, B., Charlton, K., Lindsay, J., & Greathouse, S. 1996. “The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and metaanalytic review.” Review of Educational Research, 66, 227–268.
  • Smith, M. L. & Glass, G. V (1975). Evaluation of Year-Round Schools. Cherry Creek District 5. Educational Report. ERIC Identifier: ED145537.
  • Smith, M. L. & Glass, G. V (1976). Evaluation of Year-Round Schools. Cherry Creek District 5. Second Year Final Report. ERIC Identifier: ED145538.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.

1 comment:

  1. One problem not mentioned here with YRS is the horrible experience we had in working class neighborhoods in Oakland, CA in the 1980s. Copying from Los Angeles and other urban districts in So Calif, the local politicians and administrators opted to avoid having to build more schools by going to the 4-track system described above so that 25% of kids were off track at any given time. In economics they used to call it "rationalization of the physical plant" So teachers and children had to share the same classrooms. If Class A were out on "vacation," Class B would have to occupy Class A's classroom for the duration of the 6 week vacation, and then move into Class C's room during its vacation. Imagine the stress on teachers and interference in learning time at each cycle change as Class A would have to pack up and store all of its materials (and students' work), and Class B would have to do the same to move in and out of its new classrooms. Double and triple what you imagined because in reality all of this disruption and moving around (and theft and damage to different classes' property) was that much worse. But this abomination lasted for some 15 years because nobody in power cared about poor Black and Latino kids and their teachers. When it was discovered that the YRSs had consistently lower test scores, they were discontinued.
    Dr Pete Farruggio
    Associate Professor of Bilingual Education
    Univ of TX Pan American