Educators Debate Effectiveness of Year-Long Schooling

The Obama administration wants to extend classroom time to boost retention rates and test scores, but the president will have to convince teachers to give up their vacations to do it.

The administration says a long summer vacation is out-of-date with current practices and that a longer day would allow more time on tasks in order for students to be competitive globally.

"Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Associated Press recently. "I want to just level the playing field."

Aaron M. Pallas, professor of sociology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, said in an e-mail that it's hard to isolate the effect of year-round schooling.

"There's clear and convincing evidence that students growing up in poverty lose ground when they are out of school, so schooling serves to equalize opportunity. But the evidence on achievement in year-round schools relative to traditional-calendar schools is not all that persuasive.

"An important issue is whether year-round schooling means more schooling, or simply redistributing the traditional 180 days in a different way. President Obama is calling for a longer school year as well as a shortened summer, and the length of the school year may in fact be more important. Some people believe that the reason that high-performing charter schools are successful is that they have a longer school year than traditional public schools," Pallas said.

A longer school year may help students -- and please teachers who strive to improve performance with their students despite losing free time in the process -- but any reform shouldn’t be done in a piecemeal format, said Dale Ballou, associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University.

If the school year is lengthened, Ballou said it should be done in conjunction with other policy changes that would help teachers such as providing smaller class sizes, more effective disciplinary policies, more planning time as long as it is used wisely and additional compensation.

Some students studying to become teachers were likely counting on at least two months of summer vacation to unwind, prepare for the next year, and maybe earn money in a second job or possibly take classes of their own.

"My 'summers' are two months as is," said Jamie Johnson, a junior at the University of Alabama majoring in elementary education. "The last two summers involved a total of 28 days of training. I don’t have a 'vacation' now why cut it back?"

President Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, which represents 3.2 million teachers, faculty, professionals, retired educators and students wanting to become educators, said he supports innovative proposals to increase learning time, but wants to be thorough before acting.

"Before the schedule is changed, parents, educators and members of the community must first ask themselves, ‘What do we want for our children? Can we reach that goal by adjusting the schedule or by changing the way we’re going about each day?’ If students aren’t succeeding in the current system, then that system must change," Roekel said in a statement. "NEA believes that the learning schedule should be decided at the local and state levels, but will work with the Obama administration to help set guidelines that ensure each of our students gets the quality education he or she deserves."

Another question to be answered is how it would be executed, , Ballou said.  If changes are made statewide it would be easier to coordinate than if the federal government offered incentives per district therefore possibly creating conflicting schedules for neighboring districts that negatively affect families.

Heather Reimer, a University of Wisconsin senior majoring in elementary education, said she was in favor of adding more time to the day especially if the instruction would enable arts and physical education to remain in every school and said year-round instruction has its benefits.

"A teacher usually spends the first month to month-and-a-half of the school year reviewing what the students should have learned last year. If we shortened summer break and made other breaks longer there wouldn’t need to be that wasted time of review.

"Many students by mid-July are bored with summer, so why not give the students longer, more breaks in the school year and shorten summer? I think it’s a great idea and would help the students in the long run," Reimer said.