“I don’t think we should be looking at tourism and student needs as competitive,” he was quoted as saying. “We should look at student needs and district needs first, and tourism second.”
Conflicting interests pose a real challenge for policymakers, says Marc Tucker, the president and chief executive of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. In the short-term there are legitimate concerns over protecting a community’s economic engine, something he sees play out in his southern Maine hometown, where the bulk of many families’ annual earnings take place in the summer months when tourism is in full swing. When school resumes, local restaurants have long lines outside and empty tables inside because of a lack of help, Tucker said.
Plus, the number of days on a school calendar are just one metric, and don’t necessarily reflect whether students’ best interests are being served inside the classroom, says Tucker, which is why it’s important to look at more than just when the academic year starts and ends when debating the merits of beginning class after Labor Day. Indeed, myriad initiatives have sought to add more instructional time, but such efforts, as critics have noted, can be complicated and costly to implement effectively. (For example, in a 2015 analysis of efforts to lengthen the school day in Boston’s elementary and middle schools, The Boston Globe found mixed results, with some schools showing no improvement or only short-term gains on measures like student test scores, while others reported benefits to allowing more time for enrichment activities like music and other arts.) There are also arguments to be made that such resources would also be well spent on giving students more frequent small breaks from classroom work during the academic day instead of one or two longer periods for recess or lunch. And, of course, early start times, which researchers and pediatricians concur is out of line with the circadian rhythms and sleep patterns of the teenage brain, are a whole other problem.
“We’re talking about the education of kids on whom the future health of the economy depends,” Tucker said. “We always have to come back to the issue that how you spend the time is at least as important, if not more so, than how much time is available for formal education.”
Horodyski agrees that the larger concern should be how students are spending the time both in and out of the classroom during throughout the year. She worries in particular about students whose families who can’t afford summer enrichment activities, and those who are more likely than their more-affluent peers to experience academic setbacks as a result of the longer break away from school.
“Ultimately you can add more time and you can add more days, but if you're not really focused on what you're doing with that time that's not really going to make a significant difference,” Horodyski said. “What is happening for students who aren't necessarily being supported throughout the summer months or during those longer vacation breaks? If those times were enriched in some way, and they were better supported in their learning throughout the year, maybe that would help close those gaps.”