Why School Still Starts After Labor Day in Michigan

The calendar is designed to bolster the economy—but some worry it hurts kids.

A girl plays near a water fountain on a summer day.
Brian Snyder / Reuters

For Tracy Horodyski, a teacher in the Kenowa Hills school district in Michigan, a new district schedule has her returning to the classroom on Monday, August 28—her first pre-Labor Day start in more than a decade. But rather than wishing for a longer vacation, the change comes as something of a relief.

After more than two months away, Horodyski, an elementary reading and literacy specialist and Michigan’s 2016-17 Teacher of the Year, said she’s eager to get back to school. The students she’s talked to, including her two young sons, say they’re looking forward to seeing friends, meeting their new teachers, and getting back into a more regular routine.

“And their parents are definitely ready by now for them to go back,” she said with a laugh.

In some states, the question of school calendars is being considered through an economic lens—not just with an eye toward their students’ potential as future members of the workforce but on the impact a shorter summer break might have on local tourism. Among them is Michigan, which since the 2006-07 academic year has prohibited most districts from starting prior to Labor Day, a move intended in part to protect the state’s many resort communities that depend heavily on summer visitors. This year, Horodyski’s employer joins more than 100 other districts and charter schools that have received a waiver from Michigan’s requirement, after demonstrating that an earlier start to the academic year is necessary to meet other academic mandates.

Some districts preferred to add the extra time earlier in the year, compared with tacking it on in late June, when student enthusiasm and attention spans have often begun to flag. The state’s annual assessments are given toward the end of the year, and “when testing cycle ends in May and students still have three weeks left, some may feel the school year is over after the test,” said Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff of the Kentwood school district, where the new academic year began August 22, to the Grand Rapids Press.

The earlier start is definitely preferable to Horodyski, who is starting her 19th year teaching and is currently serving as an instructional coach to other educators in the Kenowa Hills district, in the Grand Rapids area. The district won’t hold classes on Friday, September 1, allowing families to take full advantage of the popular Labor Day travel weekend. And since classes won’t start back up again until the following Tuesday, the first two weeks of school each have only four instructional days. That will also give students a chance to ease more slowly back into the learning groove, including adjusting their sleeping habits for waking up earlier, Horodyski added.

But those potential classroom benefits come into conflict with the economic realities of states like Michigan, where the later start date has meant a boost of over $20 million in tourism dollars, according to a 2016 analysis by the Anderson Economic Group. In addition to added revenue from things like hotel rooms, many of the businesses catering to tourists rely on high-school students to pick up the slack, according to the study. Those same businesses are left short-staffed when classes resume prior to the busy Labor Day weekend, the study concluded.

For a 2012 study, researchers at the University of Minnesota looked at school calendars in five states, and concluded that starting classes after Labor Day meant a 50 percent bump in families taking at least one trip—quantified as two nights or more away from home—in the months of August or September.

Michigan lawmakers have considered leaving it up to local communities to decide when classes should start, but not everyone is sold—including Deanna Richeson, the president and CEO of the Michigan Lodging and Tourism Association. Richeson predicted the state “would see some attractions and lodging go out of business” if it were up to public schools whether to start classes in August, Bridge Magazine reported. However, that’s not the top priority for some people, including Richard Machesky, the superintendent of Troy’s public schools, who is in favor of letting districts set their own schedules.

The September start “has restricted significantly our ability to do things we want to be able to do across our school district to educate kids,” Machesky told Bridge’s Alexandra Schmidt.

“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.”

Plenty of research supports that position. The so-called “summer slide”—in which students lose academic ground during vacation—is most pronounced in student groups that were already struggling, including those from less-affluent families, as well some students of color. Studies have also found that students typically learn at about the same rate during the course of the traditional 180-day academic year, regardless of their socioeconomic status. The racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps narrow between fall and spring, and then widen again over the summer. And a much-cited study by Johns Hopkins University researchers found two-thirds of the achievement gap between rich and poor ninth graders could be attributed to unequal access to summer learning opportunities.

“For kids with fewer opportunities, who aren't going to museums and traveling to foreign places … a longer summer translates into bigger learning gaps once school starts up again,” said Elena Silva, the director of pre-k-to-12 education for New America. “For teachers, it means starting the year with even more need to review last year's material. If we were really serious about providing all kids with a better education, we wouldn't shorten the year. We'd lengthen it and strengthen it by diversifying the kinds of learning we offer all year long.”

In Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan’s new directive that schools start after Labor Day—beginning with the forthcoming academic year—was intended to be a boost to both the local economy and the environment (by cutting down on use of air-conditioning in schools). But it was also met with criticism that it usurped local control over public education.

Silva, who’s conducted extensive research into how schools use learning time, said Maryland’s new policy will make it tougher for many districts that don’t have waivers to meet the state’s existing requirement for 180 school days, each with more than six hours of instruction.

“Now it's just going to be crammed into a smaller window with shorter breaks, fewer planning days for teachers, and working parents more desperate for summer child care,” said Silva, a Maryland resident. “Parents complain about too much homework and testing but part of this is because schools and teachers are pressured into fitting too much into a small box. Broaden the box, spread it out, and there will be more space for real learning to happen.”