Efforts to Lengthen School Year Have Critics, Supporters

In an attempt to improve student achievement, some school districts are experimenting with expanding the length of the school year. For the past several decades, American students have spent an average of 180 days in the classroom, roughly between September and early June. Now in cities like Phoenix and Chicago, education leaders are looking to shrink the summer vacation to 6 weeks and add between two weeks and a month to the academic calendar to allow students more learning time.

Balsz Elementary School District in Phoenix, Arizona has recently given the go-ahead for Griffith Elementary School to expand its school year by 20 days. As a result, while most students are enjoying the waning days of their summer vacation, Griffith students and their parents spent last weekend taking advantage of the early back-to-school sales to get ready for classes that have resumed this Monday.

Debra Phillips, whose two children Garvin and Bethany attend Griffith, said that her kids weren’t bothered by the fact that they are now hearing the morning school bell when many of their friends are still at least two weeks away from returning to class. She said that both Garvin and Bethany understand that school and learning are just more important than a few extra free days.

This is the same opinion expressed by a growing number of education researchers who have become more vocal about advocating for a lengthier school year. In particular, a longer year could greatly benefit children from low-income families who are more likely to fall behind their middle-class and upper-class peers over the summer. An additional week or two could prove to help shrink the income achievement gap by allowing teachers more time to educate, while a shorter summer break would greatly reduce the effect of the “summer fade.”

But studies also show that during the summer break, students — particularly those from low-income families — tend to forget what they learned in the school year. Getting back to school early, supporters of a longer calendar say, is one of the best ways to narrow an achievement gap between rich and poor students.

Still, there are skeptics — chief among them the teachers’ unions. Those who argue against the longer school year say that children are already under an increasing level of academic stress, and that stretching the academic calendar would just add to the burden without improving academic outcomes. It helps neither side that the research on the effect of the longer school year on student achievement has been largely mixed.