Why is the school year almost always limited to 180 days? And why do most schools still operate on an agrarian calendar with a huge 12-week break in the middle? I imagine that very few children these days are needed to harvest produce on their family farms. And with the changes in parenting styles and the increasing number of dual-income families, today’s children have fewer opportunities to spend their summer days as they might have in the past—shooting hoops or drinking lemonade with buddies in the backyard. They’re far more likely to be enrolled in pricey extracurricular programs or otherwise spending their days at home alone, watching SpongeBob in their pajamas until noon as they slowly forget their math facts.
An array of political and education leaders, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have championed a longer school year. “Whether educators have more time to enrich instruction or students have more time to learn how to play an instrument and write computer code, adding meaningful in-school hours is a critical investment that better prepares children to be successful in the 21st century,” Duncan said in 2012. New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie has also chimed in on the issue, writing in a June op-ed that “there is no reason that K-12 education should be an eight-month enterprise in this country … We need to adjust the model.”
A large body of evidence suggests that the 12-week hiatus can have a lasting negative impact on kids’ educational outcomes. “The Summer Slide” results in several lost months of reading and math skills, particularly among children who come from lower-income households. Children from affluent families experience similar declines in their math skills, though some research indicates that, thanks to their parents’ emphasis on summer reading, such students may actually make slight gains in their language-arts skills during the summer months. In other words, the 12-week vacation may exacerbate income-based inequality in school achievement.
The research on the academic benefits of an extended school year is mixed and inconclusive, in part because so few schools use a longer calendar; according to the nonprofit National Center on Time and Learning, only 170 schools nationwide, most of them charters, use extended calendars. Charter schools such as those run by the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, often attribute some of their academic successes to their calendar, which at KIPP runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily with extra schooling in the summer and on some Saturdays. KIPP students spend 600 more hours a year in school than children who attend traditional schools. (Critics of extended school years argue, however, that other variables play a larger role in boosting the students’ academic performance.)
Even with a push by national policymakers, experts say the school year is unlikely to change because of politics and finances. Teachers’ unions tend to oppose efforts to overhaul the traditional school calendar, arguing that teachers need a long break to participate in professional development and prepare new lesson plans, among other responsibilities. Then there are the practical concerns. To stay open on hot days, older schools would require the installation of air conditioning units. And of course, teachers and staff would have to be compensated for their time. In 2012, The New York Times reported that insufficient funding forced a number of school districts that had experimented with a longer school year to return to the old 180-day model. Anybody who has witnessed fraught local politics around school budgets knows there is little political support for raising taxes to cover additional school expenses.